Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The King of the Jews

Luke 23: 33-43, page 748
When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: This is the King of the Jews.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him, “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?” We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It’s a strange lesson for someone’s last sermon I know, but the decision was made for me – today is a great day for the church calendar, before we begin preparing for Christ’s birth, we celebrate his Lordship on what is today, Christ the King Sunday.
On this Sunday then, in a world of uncertainty where we wonder who or what is in control, we come to terms with the truth – that Christ is King.
I say we live in a world of uncertainty and I think you know that I’m not just talking about how upside down the world seems to Georgia Tech basketball fans in the wake of their defeat to Kennesaw State or how there seems to be no justice in a world where Bristol Palin continues on to the finals in Dancing with the Stars – I’m talking about a nation’s too long season of unemployment where too many don’t know where their next paycheck will come from and wonder if it will come in time to pay the heating bill or the mortgage.
A world of injustice where too many go without water, and where oil has become so valuable we risk the wellbeing of our oceans to mine for more.
A world where the Nation of Haiti, besieged by earthquake is now ravaged by disease, people striking out against each other - rioting in the street.
I’m talking about a world where we wonder just who it is that’s in control.
That’s why Christ the King Sunday means something – we remember this day who is in control – but it’s also my last Sunday, which got me thinking.
During my time with you, we’ve been through difficult times. The economy has caused hardship in many of our lives and in the life of our church. We’ve also lost loved ones. We’ve faced personal struggles. We’ve asked hard questions, we’ve been given hard answers, but in all these things I’ve been amazed by you – for despite all the challenges of our time together, you have shown me what it means to be faithful – you made the choice, that in a world of uncertainty where so much lies out of your control, you have chosen to be faithful, you have chosen life.
To choose life in the midst of a victim’s situation is a bold choice, as in doing so you did not allow the most obvious interpretation of events to go unchallenged.
You have stood in storms of uncertainty, as people too often are, and while all arrows seemed to be pointing in one direction and you’ve acted as though the meaning of devastating events - cancer, loss, divorce, unemployment – events interpreted by so many in our world as hopeless - as though meaning were yet undetermined, as though you still had a choice in how to respond.
There’s a lesson here then for the world – in the midst of confusing news, tragedy that we don’t understand occurring in a world that we don’t seem to have any control over as though we were the victims of chance – we still have a choice in how we understand.
This is profoundly important because defining what the circumstances of our world mean and what we should do about them is a constant battle fought by those who know, as Rome knew, that not just events, but the meaning assigned to events, matters.
In our scripture lesson for today, they didn’t just kill Jesus, you see, they gave this event meaning.
They harassed and humiliated him. They hung him there for everyone to see, killing him slowly, painfully, so that in his dying his weakness would speak volumes to all those who considered him powerful, his helplessness would be proclaimed to any who thought him divine, and the severity of his execution would silence his disciples and any others who might think of following in his footsteps.
Rome didn’t just kill him – his death was a warning to any who might doubt Roman power.
Rome didn’t just kill him – they made sure that any faith in him was rendered pointless.
Rome didn’t just kill him – they called him the King of the Jews – mocking any threat to Roman authority, making sure that everyone knew any challenge to Caesar was nothing more than a joke.
He can’t even save himself they said – what kind of a king can’t even save himself?
As though saving yourself were a sign of power.
While they mocked him and doubted him, as Rome utilized his death to communicate their power, Christ makes two statements that must have seemed like a whisper compared to the media campaign of the Roman Empire: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And to the criminal, the only one who sees what this event truly means, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
In all of it, we see that true power is in choosing not to believe according to the scare tactics of this present evil age, where meaning is assigned by those who seek to control you.
True power is in choosing to forgive those who persecute you in our world of revenge and terror. True power lies with those who choose not to save themselves, but die to selfishness that paradise be attained together.
Our world of milestones, current events, and non-stop news cycles is one where meaning is assigned, power is managed, and death seems to have the final word.
There is no point in challenging it, they say.
There is no power greater than the one that seems to rule our world.
But just as Peter had, we still have a choice. The question, “who do they say I am?” is not nearly as important as “who do you say I am?”
The choice to see that there is no King besides the King of the Jews.
In following him we choose life over death.
In choosing to forgive rather than blame and rant, we model a different way that those in power too often seem to know nothing about.
And in serving our neighbors as Christ saved that criminal there on the cross, we defy cycles of selfishness that destroy communities, worlds, and leave individuals alone and afraid – just where Death wants us.
So my charge to you is this – just as you chose life, chose hope – go on choosing to believe that the God of hope will not disappoint you.
Just as you chose Christ over Rome before – go on holding him close though the world would pull you apart.
And just as you, by your actions, have defied the powers of sin and death, go on doubting their power in this world which defy God’s righteousness and love.
Choose to follow the King of the Jews – and I tell you the truth – paradise awaits.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The God of the Living

Luke 20: 27-40, page 745
Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children.
Finally the woman died too.
Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ Our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”
Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Our house is on the market now, so keeping things clean for prospective buyers has taken on particular importance. Our dogs, we have three dogs and if you take no other moral lesson from this sermon than a warning that three dogs is too many dogs I will have done my job well enough, our dogs have gotten into the habit of kidnapping Lily’s stuffed animals and tearing them apart in the back yard. Sara sent me into the backyard the other day to pick up the remnants of one of my poor daughter’s less fortunate stuffed animals.
It’s strange what happens sometimes in the midst of such a project. As I was picking up stuffed animal stuffing from the backyard I started noticing other projects that needed doing – that there were also bibs in the backyard that the dogs had taken outside, leaves on the patio chairs, pine straw that needed raking, and the gutters were clogged. Then I noticed parts of the house that could use a fresh coat of paint, fence rails that could stand to be replaced, and on and on and on until the whole house suddenly seemed to be in such disrepair that I came to the hopeless conclusion that no one would ever want to buy it.
It all started with my focus, and while most people don’t go from picking up stuffed animal stuffing to thinking that their perfectly fine house is a junk heap, what we focus on has a big impact on how we understand ourselves and the world – an eye for stuffed animal stuffing can snowball – we go from seeing a paint chip on the car and a perfectly fine automobile starts to look like a jalopy – the sight of a pimple turns the prom queen’s self image from beauty to the beast.
What we focus on matters, so while we don’t learn much about the Sadducees just by reading our scripture lesson for the day, we do learn their focus. Our lesson begins: “Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.”
Luke doesn’t tell us much here, but I’m willing to bet that the author of Luke is telling us all he thinks we need to know, that the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.
I’m sure that there was much more to the Sadducees than just that, but by Luke they are defined according to what they focused on, where they stood on the great debate of the day, whether or not there was a resurrection of the dead.
Luke doesn’t tell us more any more than that, but the Sadducees’ belief spanned many more issues than this one – they focused on the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In so many ways they were like the Pharisees, except the Pharisees broadened their focus beyond the first five books of the Bible into nearly the whole of what we now have as the Old Testament, and based on these additional books the Pharisees came to believe that there was scriptural evidence for life after death.
These two groups, similar in so many ways, defined themselves according to this small difference. For the Sadducees, in order to know who they were they had to know who they weren’t, and so they defined themselves according to how they were different from the Pharisees on the great divisive topic of the day.
Jesus steps into the room, and like so many of us who are on one side of a debate or another, the Sadducees wanted to know if Jesus was with us or them.
This is what we all do to some degree or another – we want to know, are you with us or are you with them. When I went up to Tennessee last week folks wanted to know whether I was a UT fan or a Vanderbilt fan.
My response was, “Vanderbilt has a football team?”
More important than which college football team I cheer for is where Jesus stands on the great issues of the day – so the Sadducees want to know what Jesus thinks, and like so many groups who have spent too much time focusing on one particular issue, the Sadducees have reached the point of asking hypothetical questions so ridiculous that they make people feel like they either have to be with them or must be an idiot.
Seven men married to one woman – whose wife will she be?
If there is a resurrection from the dead – how can this poor woman be married to seven men? See – there can’t be a resurrection from the dead. Think about how ridiculous that would be.
But it’s not so different from the ways certain groups portray each other today. Wouldn’t you stop a woman from murdering her child? Then how can you let her murder her fetus?
Don’t you believe that women have a right to decide for themselves what they do with their bodies, or would you have them wear burkas and get their husbands permission before they do anything?
We would like to know what Jesus would do, where he would stand regarding the great debates of our day – but in a way it’s like asking what James Madison would say about video games if you’ve been following the Supreme Court hearings this week – he’s a man of another time who responded to his generation’s hot topics and not ours.
But in another way, asking Jesus to side with you or with them is even more impossible because Jesus isn’t ever on one side or the other.
Yes, Jesus takes a stand, he isn’t wishy-washy or appealing to both groups at the same time, but what’s different about Jesus is that he takes a stand by bridging differences rather than deepening the divide between the two groups.
To the Sadducees who focused solely on the books of Moses Jesus says, “Even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ Our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”
Not only is this appeal to Moses important for the sake of Jesus beating the Sadducees at their own game claiming that even Moses believed in a resurrection of the dead, but this last phrase, for to God all are alive, speaks of unity in the midst of division. For to God, all are alive.
Jesus doesn’t stand in one camp and not the other – Pharisee or Sadducee, for to God, all are alive – not just opposite camps whose focus on difference convinces them that they are more different than they are alike, but the whole of creation, and even beyond it – from the living to the dead – all are alive to God.
Unlike us, Jesus’ focus is not on what divides, knowing that if our focus is on what makes us different we will forever be divided. Jesus focus is on what makes us one - and in the eyes of God, we are all alive.
Ours is a time of intense division. Battle lines are drawn and heightened attention has been drawn to them in these midterm elections, but if our focus as a nation is on how we are different, who is right and who is wrong, who is for freedom and who is not, then the terrorists have won – you haven’t heard it lately but it’s still true: united we stand or divided we fall.
The same is true for our church – if our focus is on what divides us, then we are just where Satan wants us to be: weak, fragmented, going nowhere because we can’t agree on where to go.
So we’ve got to remember Jesus words: For to God, all are alive – and in the eyes of God there is so much that makes us one.
Unfortunately, the Sadducees did eventually come together with the Pharisees. Unified they cried out to crucify the one who called them together.
May we not be so blind.
Open your eyes to the truth. Open your eyes to the reality, that you are surrounded by your brothers and sisters.
Thanks be to God, the God who makes us one.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

At a Distance

Luke 18: 9-14, page 742
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the others – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Leaving one church and going to another is not easy at all.
As word has gotten out that I’m leaving Good Shepherd for 1st Presbyterian of Columbia, Tennessee, I’ve been honored by emails, phone calls, and face book messages – all of which make me wonder how on earth I’m ever going to be able to say goodbye to all of you.
But in addition to your kind words that I’ve been honored to receive, though some seem to me to be describing someone else entirely, I also have to go back through the examination process.
Just as when a lawyer goes from one state to another, or when a teacher goes from one district to another, a Presbyterian minister, going from one Presbytery to another, must once again go through the tedious process of examination on the floor of Presbytery, fielding questions from any of the 150-300 elders and ministers present who want to give me a hard time.
Last Wednesday I was driving up to Columbia TN, thinking about the examination to take place the next day in Nashville, and I was wondering to myself: should I be honest about who I am, or should I play the part and just get through my examination?
It’s a long drive up there, and in addition to worrying about how I would answer their questions, I was listening to the new George Washington biography that was published earlier this month, written by Ron Chernow.
This new biography portrays our first president in a revealing light – dispelling the myths that many of us grew up hearing. No, that episode with the cherry tree probably did not happen, as his father, who in this story rewards young Washington for refusing to tell a lie actually died long before his son would have ever been able to lift an ax. The other myth – that George Washington was able to throw a coin clear across that great, wide, river seems also to be a fabrication.
These stories, however, while they are almost certainly not factually true, do point to some truths of Washington’s character – he cherished honesty for the most part, and, standing at over six feet tall, Washington was probably taller and stronger than the vast majority of men of his generation.
His greatness aside, there is more to the story, as like all great biographies, this most recent concerning our 1st president works to dispel myths of character in the hopes of getting to the truth. So his biography tells the story of a young man, thrust into adulthood early by the death or his father and his older brothers, who drove himself up the ladder of Virginia aristocracy by inflating his military prowess to heroism, a military career that was in reality up until the Revolutionary War, scarred by mistakes and redeemed by luck. Though a champion of freedom, Washington one of the largest slave owners in the state of Virginia, though remembered as a great politician, his early political gains were bought through bribery by rum, and though generally thought of as a Christian man, was a steady attendee of the Anglican Church, and took leadership roles therein, he never took communion nor made any outright profession of faith.
Biographies have a way or undoing the images we place upon people – for in biographies you are invited to see people for who they truly are.
It’s good, then, that biographies are most often only written after their subject’s death, as only after death can our society’s heroes and villains stop being who we need them to be.
Our nation needed Washington to be a hero, to be larger than life, and so he was – but in death this newest biography offers him the freedom to be the person he always was, the person history has been reluctant to let him be – a human being – exactly what he always was before God.
Before God there is no reason to pretend to be larger than life – before God there is no reason to be anything other than yourself because God already knows exactly who are you.
It’s a shame then that none of Washington’s prayers survived to inform his newest biography – they may have shed light on who he was and what he truly thought of himself.
Prayers do survive though – two of them – one from a tax collector and another from a Pharisee make up important parts of our scripture lesson for today – and these prayers both certainly shed light on the character of these two men.
These two men are alike in so many ways. They are both Jews – we know that because they both are granted entrance into the temple. They are both religious Jews – wanting to go to the temple at all. And they are both important figures in ancient Palestinian society – one, a revered religious figure – the other, a despised tax collector.
We are given an intimate look into their person through their prayer – though – based on who they were characterized as by their world, I can’t say that we learn much of anything new.
The Pharisee is exactly who society needed him to be – he was supposed to be better than everyone else, and so, in his prayer, he thanks God that he is. His congregation needed him to be exemplary, and so, in his prayer, we learn that he really does fast twice a week and gives a tenth of all that he receives.
The tax collector is also exactly who society needed him to be – he was supposed to be worse than everyone else, a cheater, a thief, a bad person, taking more than was his while the Pharisee willingly sacrificed, greedily getting as much as he can while the Pharisee willingly gives a tenth of his income away.
While they are opposites in some ways, each taking their respective place on the ethical scale of their society, they are the same in that their society needed them to be who they were, and they both perform their parts perfectly.
Society needs people who are particularly holy, people who they can look up to, who they can believe are closer to God, and so the Pharisee in prayer confesses to be just that. In the same way, society needs villains, people to look down on, people who can populate the bottom of the barrel so that most folks can say, “well, I’m not that great, but at least I’m better than him.” We need our villains so that we can feel OK about who we are, and so the tax collector plays his part.
But where this parable goes far off track is when Jesus says, “I tell you, this man [meaning the tax collector] went home justified before God.”
Why? Why is he the one who went home justified?
In prayer they are both in line with their respective characterizations – the Pharisee is good, and thankful that he is so good – and the tax collector is bad, and ashamed that he is so bad.
They are both playing their parts, and societal expectations would surely say that the Pharisee went home justified.
But based on the words of Jesus, it would seem that before God, it is better to be repentant.
That in our world, where we favor heroism above villainy, holiness above sacrilege, benevolence above selfishness, in the mind of God there is only repentance – or dependence on God’s grace – and self-righteousness – or the idea that you are good enough on your own, and you don’t really need God for anything besides an ear to hear how holy you think you are.
Our society asks much of us – and we all have parts to play – but God only asks us to be who we are – sinners in need of God’s grace for our salvation.
When we go before God, what we learn from this parable is that it is always better to be repentant, because in being repentant we ask God to enable us to be something more than we can achieve on our own.
What matters is not whether you are good or bad in the eyes of yourself or this world – what matters in the eyes of God is whether or not you are on the road to being better. Our world divides us up into simplistic categories, but in the eyes of God, there is only the self-righteous and the repentant – those who are justified in their own eyes and those who are trying to be justified in God’s eyes. Those who are praying about their own holiness, and those who are praying the tax collector’s prayer: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
No matter who you are or where you’ve been – what matters in the eyes of God is where you are going. Are you happy with where you are, who the world says you are, or are you appealing to God to have mercy, trusting that your weakness is the foundation for God’s strength?
God, have mercy on me, a sinner the tax collector prayed – if this is your prayer than you can be sure that in the eyes of God you are justified.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Will He Find Faith on the Earth?

Luke 18: 1-8, page 742
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
He said: In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about people. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘grant me justice against my adversary.’
For some time he refused, but finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about people, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’
And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for the chosen ones, who cry out day and night? Will God keep putting them off? I tell you, God will see that they get justice and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’
I’ve told you before that I used to work lawn maintenance for a company downtown. That I had a college degree didn’t really mean anything, but that I could speak English and had a driver’s license did and I was on my way up the ladder as far as lawn maintenance was concerned. Unfortunately though, I still had to pay my dues, and that meant being trained by Loco Lee.
Loco Lee, that’s what the Hispanic guys called him behind his back, and he was just that. Like me, he could speak English, had a driver’s license, and even a college degree from the Citadel of all places, but unlike me, he was crazy.
He would get mad and fly off the handle over the smallest things. His leaf blower wouldn’t start, so he’d throw it into the street. The truck’s transmission fell out, so he walked around it kicking and cussing it for a solid 15 minutes while I tried to keep the customers from seeing.
That kind of behavior shocked me, and certainly shocked poor Jorge who couldn’t understand what Lee was saying but knew it was bad. But what really made me afraid of Lee was the stuff he’d say while he was perfectly calm.
He lived in one of those pay by the week hotels, just like the ones on the other side of 78 from us, and while he had a driver’s license he didn’t have a car. One day I was giving him a ride home and he said to me, out of no-where: “You shouldn’t brush your teeth Joe. It’s a losing battle.”
“What do you mean Lee?” I asked.
“Our life spans are now longer than our teeth were built to last. Your teeth will make it, 40, 50 years max. Then they’ll just fall out. I don’t see any reason to fight it. I’m just going to let them go. I’ll have to get them all replaced anyway, why not give up now?”
Lee taught me a lot of things about lawn maintenance, but you’ll be relieved to know I haven’t taken any of his advice on dental hygiene.
Some people think this way though – knowing what the end will be, resistance seems futile. Fighting against tooth decay will eventually end in tooth loss sooner or later – you can’t win so why not quit now.
But that’s like saying – I’m eventually going to die – why should I fight it.
And that’s true. We are, all of us, going to die eventually. But life is in the resistance to this truth – and I refuse to give up any earlier than I have to.
Our scripture lesson begins: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” To make any sense out of this introduction we have to deal with what came before it – we have to know why it was that the disciples were even thinking of giving up.
In the verses leading up to our scripture lesson for today is a section titled by your pew Bibles as: “the coming of the kingdom of God.” Our lesson, verses 1 through 8 of chapter 18 may well end the section titled “the coming of the kingdom of God” considering verse 8: “However, when the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Jesus had been talking to them about what the end – the end of all things – was going to be like. As anyone who believes that the end is imminent, they were tempted to hole up in a cave with as many gold bars and canned goods as they could find until whatever was going to happen happened.
This kind of knowledge, knowledge about the end, is dangerous then – because faith isn’t just about waiting and watching, sitting back while God does what God is going to do. While faith is certainly about trusting that at the end of all things God is there, for sure, but it’s also about what we do in the meantime.
So “Jesus told them a parable to show them that they should always pray and never give up.”
In this parable there is a widow with no help in the world. Her husband is gone, no children are mentioned, and she goes appealing to a faithless judge who might at least be shamed into feeling sorry for her, but this judge doesn’t even care what anyone thinks of him.
Just the same, she goes to this judge while he’s walking from the golf course to dinner. She hassles him as he walks from his house to his girlfriend’s house (I’m filing in between the lines a little bit). She finds him wherever he hides, she’s on the steps at his office waiting as he pulls up – there’s no escaping her so appeasing her becomes easier than trying to ignore her.
This is what faith looks like according to Christ. This widow is who we are to emulate.
While we know that the end is coming, while we know where we will be and what will happen when it does, we aren’t to sit back and wait, but are called to go on harassing the judges of this earth – demanding from them justice.
Justice will certainly come when the Son of Man returns – but the faithful will not be lazily waiting for his arrival. The faithful will be busy doing the work of the kingdom.
This parable is certainly an important one – not just because it assures us that the unjust judges of our world – the faithless hierarchies of power, the bureaucracies and systems that care nothing for you or I – they’re days are numbered.
But this parable is even more important, because in addition to letting us know how the great cosmic story will end – we are instructed on how we are to conduct ourselves until he comes.
Knowing that Christ is coming is no reason to stop pursuing justice, just as knowing that your teeth are eventually going to fall out is no reason to put off dental hygiene.
In this time in between right now and the end – we are called to go on praying, go on fighting for justice – as there is life to be lived between now and then.
Ours is the time of widows who demand justice – and like the wives, girlfriends, and children camped out on top of the mine in Chile – we have no excuse for packing up and heading home. They all could have so easily rushed to the end. How many must have considered them widows already, but they refused to give in to the end though they knew in whom those miner’s fates rested. Rather than give into death, like widows at the door of a faithless judge they were relentless in their pursuit for justice, relentless in their belief that those miners were worth saving.
So many would have let a collapsed mind end the story – and trusted those minors fates’ to God – but like a widow demanding justice those women persisted.
One of the greatest works of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, was written for his dying father. I’ll share this poem with you now:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
We Christians know how all of this is going to end – if our faith is sure than we are given the gift of easy sleep, trusting our destiny to the Son of Man, the one who was with us in the beginning and will be with us in the end. But such knowledge leaves us no excuse for not living today. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Thank You

Luke 17: 11-19, page 741
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.
As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
I’ve been thinking about Bobby Cox a lot lately. I’m not just glad that the Braves made it to the play-offs in his last season as Head Coach, I’m thankful.
I don’t admire sports heroes as much as some, but I do Bobby because I remember what Braves baseball was like before he showed up.
Walking away from games with my head held low – embarrassed to wear a Braves hat outside the metro-Atlanta area – not just because it was baby blue either – because they were awful!
In reflecting on his career, some have said, “He should have coached the Braves to more World Series victories,” and it’s possible to say that – but only if you have no conception of where we were before Bobby Cox showed up.
Sure – Dale Murphy was great – but the Braves were bad. As folks think about Bobby Cox they need to remember that; you’ve got to remember where you were compared to where you are – if you don’t you might forget to say thank you to someone who deserves it.
Our lesson for today is hard to understand – you immediately wonder why only one came back to say “thank you.”
Maybe he was the only one raised right – but plenty of people are raised right and still, plenty of people don’t say thank you when they should.
I think about my tax dollars. A gift, if you will, to our banks. A safety net, a bail-out, a big, big gift from you and I to virtually every bank in this country to save them from their own bad management.
But I haven’t received a thank you note. Have you?
You could make the case it was a forced gift – but then my joke doesn’t work.
It surprises me how quickly people forget. Or maybe it’s not forgetfulness at all. Maybe it’s something else.
Maybe the nine who didn’t go back to thank Jesus were just too excited; maybe they were so excited they couldn’t wait to go to the priest, be approved as clean according to his judgment by the law, and then, finally allowed to return to his family after being forced to live on the outskirts for who knows how long, quarantined for the good of his own family and friends, couldn’t wait a single second to get home.
Or maybe there’s more to it than that.
It’s hard to admit that we need help. And it’s even harder to say thank you when we’ve received something we couldn’t provide for ourselves, something we are embarrassed that we couldn’t provide for ourselves.
Sometimes out of desperation we call out for help, and as soon as we receive the help we so desperately needed we forget how bad off we were before the help came.
There was a great storm one night, and John Newton was on a slave ship, not below decks as a slave, but a willing participant and beneficiary of the slave trade. The night was so dark and the storm so severe that though he had made it through storms before he was afraid, and though he had grown up with no particular religious convictions, he called out to God for help.
There’s nothing so unique about that.
I think we’ve all been there before, maybe not in the midst of a storm on the sea, but certainly a storm of the soul. I’ve certainly been afraid before, and in my fear have more than once called out to God for help much the way the lepers in our lesson do.
But upon deliverance, once the storm has subsided, something happens in remembering. The fear, once so severe doesn’t seem so bad anymore. Without the wind and the rain to remind us – life goes back to normal – the illusion that we are in control and can save ourselves re-establishes itself so quickly.
Maybe that’s just how our memories work – our successes get bigger and bigger like old fishing stories, but the terror of the dark nights when we need saving fades.
It’s important then to know that for John Newton, the dark night never escaped his memory, and that storm on the sea became the inspiration for one of our faith’s most beloved hymns, Amazing Grace.
Our temptation so often is to just get on with our lives, forget how bad it was, go on home and back to life as normal, leave the leprosy behind, not even taking the time to say “thank you” because in saying “thank you” I have to be reminded of how bad things were.
In this story from Luke’s Gospel Jesus represents salvation – salvation from a state that those 9 never wanted to be reminded of again.
They didn’t want to think about their leprosy.
They didn’t want to think about their days of living on the outskirts of town shunned by friends and family.
They didn’t want to go back into that shack where they were reduced to a community made up of those whom society could do without.
They didn’t want to acknowledge what they needed Christ to save them from, so they went on with their lives.
But for the one – for the one who remembered – Christ was more - Christ was savior.
When we come to terms with who we were – when we don’t forget what we needed – Christ becomes more – for those in radical need of saving find in Christ a radical savior.
To be truly thankful that you’ve been found – you’ve got to come to terms with the fact that you were lost.
You want to know the sweet sound of God’s Amazing Grace – you can’t forget that you were once a wretch who needed saving.
You want your fears relieved – you’ve got to know your fear.
You want to see – then admit that you were blind.
You want to be saved – then come to terms with the fact that you need saving and you can’t do it yourself.
There’s strength in that surrender.
And there’s no shame in it – because who you are – who you were – what came before – is the foundation for your salvation.
To have a savior – you’ve got to know you need one – thanks be to God, Christ is ours.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

At This Table

Lamentations 1: 1-6, page 581
How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!
How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.
Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks.
Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.
After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile.
She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place.
All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed feasts.
All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish.
Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease.
The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins.
Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe.
All the splendor has departed from the Daughter of Zion.
Her princes are like deer that find no pasture; in weakness they have fled before the pursuer.
October is pastor appreciation month, and even though I am one, I don’t think this is a very good time to be appreciating pastors to be quite honest.
The Pope has continued to receive harsh criticism for not confronting the evil of child abuses by clergy, and for maybe even knowingly ignoring the plight of the victims, maybe even turning a deaf ear to their cries for justice.
October is also a month when we will be giving extra attention to the Bishop Eddie Long who stood in the pulpit last Sunday morning, “looked out over the thousands assembled to hear him speak, and talked of his congregation as a family that gave him great comfort in a time of pain.”
There’s something wonderful about that, I think. There’s not much better than family to back you up when you need them – and there’s not much better when the church is that family – but there is something sinister when the church is rallied around Bishop Eddie Long, promising their support of him, labeling his accusers as liars, calling their testimony a betrayal, when those accusers are a part of that church family as well. In demonizing them a church family turns its back on four of its brothers. Four young men who may well have been injured beyond repair by a man whom they trusted as a father, their voices are not heard but ignored. As victims, victims that they very well may be, they are not comforted but silenced.
In the words of Jay Bookman, who wrote an opinion column on the subject for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “As family counselors and child-abuse specialists can testify, that’s not surprising. The dynamics at New Birth [Missionary Baptist Church] are painfully similar to those in families all across the country… In a church as in a home, it can be far less painful to suppress the claim than to demand accountability from those with power.” And so, to avoid even the thought that the pastor they see as being so close to God might be a wolf in sheep’s clothes, a conclusion that would threaten the very foundation of their church and their faith, the victims’ testimonies are doubted, their voices silenced, and their words that may well be the truth that seeks to topple a system of abuse by the hand of a powerful man are ignored.
The book of Lamentations is an often-ignored book. It’s words are not easy to hear speaking as they do of suffering, but we must listen to this voice, for in ignoring any voice of lamentation, be it children abused by priests, or young men accusing a respected figure of wrong doing, ignoring the voice of the downtrodden allows the injustice that they suffered to continue, allows for systems of oppression to go on oppressing, allows for all the wrong in the world to never be made right.
That the book of Lamentations is even here in the Bible seems a miracle, but it is read today as it has been read for years, in the hopes that the system that the prophet Jeremiah prophesied against, the system that God allowed the Babylonians to topple, the system that resulted in 70 years of exile for the Israelites, would not be repeated.
This book is read today to help us to question the way things are that we might avoid the failures of the past, as Laminations is a song written from a place you never want to go, a destination you never want to end up in, it is a warning – your path may be leading you here, and here is where you do not want to be.
Hear these words of warning – do not ignore its voice.
But too often we do – and lost in a place we don’t want to be we wish we would have listened.
The hierarchy of the church, rather than hear the testimony of the abused wanted to go on believing that Priests were not capable of such crimes, and now hundreds of children have been violated.
And what destiny awaits New Birth? Rather than hear the testimony of the abused, many seem to want to go on believing that their pastor is as holy as they want him to be, and how many more young men will have to be violated before it stops?
Then there are the voices that cry out in the world – the hungry children cry out – but do we hear their voice or go on down the path that we are set on going down?
The orphans of war – will we hear their voices that question our violence?
The sick without care – will we hear their groans or go on living as though everything were fine?
The solider with nowhere to go and no one who understands – will we stand by him as we once did or leave him to fend for himself once he’s done what we asked him to do?
The battered and the beaten who demand that we question our lives, wonder how if the way things are results in their pain, than is this the way things have to be?
We would too often rather go on living our daily lives than question where our way of life is taking us; we too often silence the voices of descent because they put our way of life into question; but their voices are warnings: “You do not want to keep going down this road.”
The voice of Lamentations is a warning, just as the cross stood as warning to Rome. As the great critique of Empire – what you call peace is not peace, what you call justice is not justice, your system, how can you call it righteous when your system put Christ to the cross?
And his words are here for us now.
That when you think that the cries of the world are not worth hearing, he reminds you that we are all part of one body.
When you think that you are all alone, he reminds you that we all eat from one common loaf of bread.
When words of suffering make you too uncomfortable and you are tempted to ignore them, he calls you to drink from the cup, poured out of his blood.
Today we celebrate world communion, celebrating the great feast of the Eucharist together with Christians from one corner of the globe to the other, and we are called to hear their voices that cry out to us, calling us to change our ways that the world might not be broken up into friends and enemies, but united as brothers and sisters in Christ.
His voice at this table calls us back to righteous living.
His invitation to you is to come and be made whole.
I’ll close with a Franciscan Benediction:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Again in this Land

Jeremiah 32: 1-15, page 561
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. The army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was confined in the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace of Judah.
Now Zedekiah king of Judah had imprisoned him there, saying, “Why do you prophesy as you do? You say, “This is what the Lord says: I am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will capture it. Zedekiah king of Judah will not escape out of the hand of the Babylonians but will certainly be handed over to the king of Babylon, and will speak with him face to face and see him with his own eyes. He will take Zedekiah to Babylon, where he will remain until I deal with him, declares the Lord. If you fight against the Babylonians, you will not succeed.”
Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of Shallum your uncle is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth, because as nearest relative it is your right and duty to buy it.’
Then, just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the courtyard of the guard and said, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. Since it is your right to redeem it and possess it, buy it for yourself.’
In knew that this was of the Lord; so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver. I signed and sealed the deed, had it witnessed, and weighed out the silver on the scales. I took the deed of purchase – the sealed copy containing the terms and conditions, as well as the unsealed copy – and I gave this deed to Baruch son of Neriah, the son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and of the witnesses who had signed the deed and of all the Jews sitting in the courtyard of the guard.
In their presence I gave Baruch these instructions: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time. For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.’
I was listening to a radio program called “This American Life,” last week. I listen to this particular program a lot, as each week the topic of the show changes, always to something interesting. This past week’s show featured different stories, all of whom were told by people who came to understand their life better by interpreting their life in light of some scientific law.
This is a strange idea, I know, but hear me out.
The show began with a young man whose father was convinced that New York City was the perfect place. That New York was where he belonged, that there people would understand him and embrace him, there he would find success and happiness, find all the elusive things he had been searching for.
The son who tells this story about his father knew that if his father couldn’t be happy, moving wasn’t going to change that; that in fact, moving to New York City wouldn’t change anything because it’s foolish to think that just moving somewhere different will fix all your problems, that eventually you have to bloom where you’re planted as all places endure ups and downs.
There’s a principle from science that fits this situation as it turns out: The Mediocrity Principle. The Mediocrity Principle emerged after Galileo discovered that the universe does not in fact revolve around the sun, that the earth is not the most important part of the galaxy, and so claims that no place in the universe is more special than any other
Scientists, however, resent using laws this way, and I suppose that makes sense. The Mediocrity Principle wasn’t developed so that sons might understand their fathers, but so that astronomers might understand the universe.
This is one difference between science and religion, as while the Bible wasn’t written with us in mind per se, Christianity is certainly different from science because this is exactly the hope – that in reading sacred texts we might not only understand Jeremiah, but ourselves.
To better understand ourselves then, let us look to what may seem to be a rather mundane event in the life of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is here doing what many of us have done before, he is buying land. What is recorded in scripture here in Jeremiah chapter 32 is a real-estate transaction, and to understand its significance you have to understand Jeremiah, who he was, and who he is in relation to King Zedekiah of Judah.
Our first scripture lesson came from Jeremiah’s first chapter, the story of Jeremiah’s call by God. Here, though only a boy, he was called by God to “destroy and overthrow,” but also to “build and to plant.”
The first part of Jeremiah’s call, to “destroy and overthrow,” is what got him in trouble with the King of Judah. King Zedekiah can’t rule a people panicked over his nation’s fall to Babylon, and whether or not the King actually thinks Judah will fall, Jeremiah has been telling people that there is no point in fighting the Babylonians as God has already decided how the battle will end. No King can expect an army to fight well should that army be convinced that they’re going to lose, so the King has an interest in keeping Jeremiah quiet.
But not only does the King want Jeremiah quiet. The king also wants to try to understand what it is that Jeremiah thinks he’s doing. “Why do you prophesy as you do?” King Zedekiah asks.
Jeremiah’s response is the second part of God’s charge to him: “to build and to plant.”
Jeremiah’s answer to the King’s question is that while disaster and destruction are surely coming, that is only half the message: I prophesy as I do because I know that at the end of all of this: “Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”
There’s a lesson here for us, and not just because in many ways our world has been toppled as though invaded by the Babylonian army, jobs lost, retirement and savings depleted, our way of life changed, there’s a lesson here for us because as a church we have bought property in a time it didn’t make very much sense to do so.
It was over a year ago that we bought that land next to our church, and while to most of us at the time it made a lot of sense to take advantage of the chance to buy the property right next door, there were many who asked sound questions founded in reality: “why are we doing this?” some asked, “we don’t need more land, if anything we need less.” “This nation is going into a recession – you can’t think that now is a good time to be making purchases that aren’t completely necessary, can you?” And maybe the most important: “for the last ten years our church has been getting smaller, not larger. What do we need with room to grow?”
These are good questions – especially in light of the immediate future at the time – a future which we know now is what we feared it would be – a time of tightened belts, pay cuts, furlough days, and job loss.
But we’ve got to remember that Jeremiah bought land in Judah, not after the Babylonians captured and destroyed, but during, right “when the army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was confined in the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace of Judah,” right before even the King knew that his kingdom would be concurred, he himself taken by the Babylonian hordes.
Jeremiah bought land when there was no reason to believe that he would even need it or have a reason to use it; for all he knew he would be taken back to Babylon as a prisoner of war and there he would die, never even setting foot on the land that he bought that day.
In fact, it would seem as though he knew he would never see that day because he is sure to sign the documents before witnesses and requests that his scribe Baruch take the documents and seal them in clay jars so that they will “last a long time.”
Today, for whatever reason, I am painfully aware that I am your interim pastor, and that I will not be here when you will need to expand into the property that we bought one year ago. But as a man of faith – both faith in God and faith in you – I know that such a day will soon be coming.
We have certainly seen some hard times, dramatic change. But what I know for certain is that God has not put this church here and through hard times so that we might fade away, but so that we might be reborn.
Like Jeremiah, you have planned for the future by buying land; and like Jeremiah, you must now look forward to the day when you will need it – for having been through hard times – you are entering the days of building and planting in a place that God intends you stay.
You have made it through some hard times – now comes something new – a time with its own challenges, but challenges of growth and not decline.
You have made it through some hard times – and now you are ready for a future that only the faithful could have seen a year ago.
You have made it through some hard times – now build where you are planted – a place where God has been faithful, a place where God will continue to be faithful.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

It Depends Where You're Standing

Luke 16: 1-15, page 740
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘what is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job, I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg – I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
“’Eight hindered gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’
“Then he asked the second, ‘and how much do you owe?’
“’A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
“No servant can serve two masters. Either he or she will hate the one and love the other, or he or she will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of humanity, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among people is detestable in God’s sight.
Jesus tells stories, but as you can see, they’re not always easy to follow and they sometimes take work to understand.
You particularly find out that this is true when re-telling Jesus’ parables to children.
I was thankful this past Wednesday morning to be standing where I was, in the back of the crowd, while our Pre-School director Pam McClure was standing in front. She was telling a group of three and four year old children the story of the Good Samaritan.
“There was a man hurt on the side of the road,” she said. “His body was covered in boo-boos.”
“Were they bug bites?” a little girl with curly blond hair asked.
“No honey,” Pam responded, “they weren’t bug bites.”
“Bug bites hurt,” the little girl responded.”
“Yes they do honey, but let me get back to telling the story,” Pam said.
“Do you like my hair?” the little girl asked.
You see – even just finishing the story gets complicated when you are telling it to children, but what is also difficult is leading them to associate with the character you want them to associate with – because where they stand in the story matters – where they stand changes how they hear the lesson.
Take Robin Hood for example. It’s a complicated story, especially if the stories hearer’s begin to associate with the rich – “It’s wrong to steal, isn’t it?” a child might rightly ask.
And a response: “Yes he steals from the rich but he gives to the poor,” might or might not clear anything up.
This morning we are faced with a particularly difficult parable to understand – whether you are a child or a seminary trained pastor who has tried to unravel it by reading it in Greek – this parable will give you a hard time.
The place to begin though is knowing who to associate with – knowing where you stand in the story.
There are three main players: the rich man, also referred to in the parable as the master, is easy enough to figure out – this character represents God – the source of all the possessions possessed by any character in the story. Then there are the debtors – one who carries a debt of olive oil, another of grain. To figure out who these two represent you need only be reminded of your credit card bill or the prayer that we pray every Sunday, “forgive us our debts.” This character in the parable represents you.
And the third – maybe the most important as he is the main character – is a little harder to figure out – so you must go to the end of our passage to hear who this parable offended. The manager, the manager of the debts, the middle man between you, the debtor, and God, the master, are those powerful religious elite who had a particular interest, not in your ability to pay off your debt free and clear, but had a particular interest in keeping you in-debt so that they might make a living off your gradual payment, so that they might hold power over you keeping you in a hole that they had no interest in you ever getting out of.
In today’s world we have known religious professionals who have taken the same approach – maintaining a sure sense of your indebtedness and lording that indebtedness over you so that even once you feel as though you’ve gained some salvation in comes a fear of back-sliding putting you right back where they want you.
But surely here, while I have hit my hand against the pulpit once or twice, it’s not a religious authority who holds you in debt – so this parable isn’t just about guilt and shame and those people who make a living from your guilt and shame – this parable is also about money.
Money that controls, and keeps folks chasing after it. Greed that defines, and redefines priorities so that profit matters over all else. And debt that confines, holds down, and imprisons – keeps folks from freedom, peace of mind, and security.
There are plenty in our world who would play the part of the manager flawlessly.
There are those banks that, from their commercials, appear to be about getting people on their feet, small businesses off the ground, and families in houses that they can afford. But too many have found that the reality is that so many who have loaned money out don’t want to help, don’t even want you to pay off your debt, but want you in the trap of accumulating interest for as long as they can hold you. Credit cards that come in the mail and appear to be the answer to our prayers – veritable interest rate loans that start off just fine – but the goal of these companies is not to help you – but to control you and squeeze as much money out of you as they can.
Then there are those people, those brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, so kind, so comforting in times of mourning, but who circle like vultures when the will is read. Money becomes what matters – and the relationships that are the only ties that bind are forfeited in the name of who gets what.
There are those bosses who want you as long as you’re producing, those friends who offer you favors, not to be kind but who are looking forward to you repaying in kind.
We hold grudges rather than give forgiveness, hold interest rather than forgive debts, and chase money rather than holding on to each other – as like the Pharisees before us – we know that this kind of power can be nice.
But who are we, but managers of what God gives – and shouldn’t we be both surprised and afraid to find that God has no interest in lording over us, holding our debts over us, keeping us tied down – but only desires that our debts be reconciled offering a lower rate than we would ever expect – that our relationships to each other and to our God be made right as though our God only desires that we be set free – only desires that we give up our pursuit of worthless treasures in favor of something that truly matters: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
I have a debate with myself whenever I check out at the grocery store. I was at the Kroger the other morning, in a hurry but not too much of a hurry.
I thought about the self-checkout line – there were a couple people there – then I looked at the sole check-out line peopled by a Kroger employee and went there though there was a line.
The man in front of me bought cigarettes, cat food, and a newspaper – I’m a nosy person you see.
I was surprise that he started talking about a book he’s reading to the woman at the register.
“It’s a work of science fiction – it will probably take me six weeks to read it – you have to have a physics back ground to understand it – I have to sit and think awhile after I’ve only read five pages.
“And could you also give me change for a ten – two fives please,” the man said.
“I’m taking my mother to get her hair done and if I only have a $10 bill she’ll want to tip the stylist the whole $10.”
“It looks like you got a hair but too,” the woman at the register said. “You look nice.”
“Not too nice though,” he replied. “I lost another tooth so I’m scared to smile because when I do I look like I’m from Appalachia.”
“I’m getting a new one though,” he said.
“Well then, you come in here smiling once you do,” the woman said.
He covered his mouth, “I’m smiling now, but don’t look – you may hear the theme song from deliverance.”
Then he left.
“I love seeing that man. He makes me smile every time I see him,” the woman at the register said to me.
Profit drives stores to have those self-checkout lanes – and we like them too, not just because they’re convenient but because if they save a little money the stores will save us a little money.
But there are things more important.
Self-checkout lines don’t get jokes. They can’t smile.
So it depends where you’re standing. In one line or the other.
And money goes – you lose it by spending it away, wasting it away, or by dying without the option of taking any of it with you.
Friends on the other hand – real friends – are there for keeps.
God on the other hand – the Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end – will always stand with you.
But so much depends on where you stand.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Of Whom I am the Worst

1st Timothy 1: 12-17, page 839
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.
The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are to Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the word to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever, Amen.
I know that there are plenty of people who wouldn’t dare walk through our doors and into our church out of fear that they are not good enough.
Some would be afraid that they don’t wear the right clothes; that they would feel out of place.
Some are afraid that their sinful way of life would be obvious, that we might all smell the alcohol on their breath, smoke on their clothes, adultery on their lips as though their sins were made plain like a scarlet letter or neon sign for everyone to see.
And some are afraid that they can’t measure up to us and our behavior. Some are afraid that they don’t deserve to associate with people like us – the saved, the redeemed, the nice, and the polite – and so they stay away because they think they aren’t good enough to fit in.
What a disappointment Church is to that group of people – as once they get in here and get to know us – if they thought we were cut from a finer cloth or were more perfect than all the rest I can’t say that it would take very long for them to feel disappointed.
As a church we try to make it obvious enough – right there on the cover of our bulletin we make a statement about who we are: “We are an imperfect people.”
This sounds like a very strange statement to make to some folks I’m sure – but what we say about ourselves is more or less the essence of Paul’s version of Christianity that we have read here in 1st Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”
The author of this letter, one who is probably not Paul himself as most scholars believe 1st Timothy was written after Paul’s death, but a student of Paul modeling Paul’s teaching, is very up-front about something that most of us would rather hide.
I was talking with a young woman a little worried about heading off to college week before last. I asked her what she was most worried about. There’s so much you can know now about your roommates before you even meet them these days, and after having done considerable research on facebook and whatnot, finding out as much as she could about the young women who would become her roommates, she was worried that they might be rich and snobby, that they might have better clothes, and with them take up too much space in the shared closet.
“If it’s that they might come from more money than you do, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” I said. “College is the kind of place where most everyone is trying to escape who they are and where they come from. The kids from poor families don’t want you to know that they came from poor families, and the kids from rich families don’t want anyone to know that they came from rich families – I’m sure that if your roommates do come from money they are not going to want you to know anything about it.”
College is the kind of place where you start over, where you try to leave who you were behind, but who you are, where you come from, what you’ve done, and what you haven’t done aren’t things that you can run from or leave at home. We’re attracted to such opportunities as college, because just being ourselves is so hard. The courage to be – to boldly be who God created you to be – is a skill that too few posses.
Paul then, viewed by so many church-goers the way non-church-goers view church-goers, doesn’t remain up on that pedestal time and tradition have placed him on, but climbs right down to us, boldly proclaiming who he is and what he’s done: a blasphemer, persecutor of the church, a violent man.
It would have been so easy for Paul to let sleeping dogs lie, leave the past to the past, and allow us all to go on believing that the great Paul the Apostle were without fault.
But Paul knows, as I hope and pray, many of us know, that there is no reason for any of us to fear our pasts – as not only does God invite us to live a new life in Christ – but Christ’ grace was poured out on us abundantly while we were still sinners – before - before we had any chance of deserving it.
It is not out of a hope of deserving God’s love that Paul changed his way of life – it was a response to God’s grace that he received before he had changed anything or had any hope of deserving it.
That’s why at this church we say, not only that we are an imperfect people, but that “We are an imperfect people, who, in response to God’s Grace, are striving to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Like Paul then – we boldly proclaim our imperfection, our sin, our short-coming – not because we miss our old way of life, and rather than pretend that we can escape it we know that we are not defined by it, because in the midst of that brokenness there was God’s love shining bright. In the midst of our undeserving nature, there was God’s grace poured out. In the midst of all our imperfection, there was God’s perfection making us unafraid to be who we truly are.
Our brokenness is not our weakness – our brokenness is nothing to be afraid of – as in spite of that brokenness that makes you feel that you don’t deserve God’s love, remember that it was when you were broken that the grace of our Lord was poured out to you abundantly – not because you are good, but because God is good.
As a church – we can’t be about anything else – and so we do our best to boldly proclaim that God’s love isn’t about deserving – it’s about the kind of love that is given and can never be deserved.
Yesterday I received an email from, John VanBrunt, a man who a few years ago was extremely active in our church’s life and ministry to the point that he and others were driving to Long Beach, Mississippi, to aid in reconstruction efforts in the wake of hurricane Katrina every other month. This group, along with middle-schoolers and high-schoolers from our church who also worked in Long Beach with their leader Katie Arnold, formed a relationship with one family, the Allenbaughs, who you may remember from the time they visited our church. Chris Allenbaugh, the bread-winner of the family, needed a motor for his boat, as the family’s livelihood depended on his work out on the ocean which he was unable to do, having lost everything in the storm.
Our church raised the money in no time for Chris to buy his boat a brand new motor – but as we raised the money there were plenty among us who worried – will giving this family a motor really help, or should they be working for it? Can our hand-outs really help this family, or will giving them a huge gift they didn’t have to earn make them dependant?
These are good and important questions – our church decided that we would just do what we could to help, and that we would leave the rest up to God.
We abundantly poured out to this family – and today, to use John’s words: “through God’s providential care and timing” Chris has been able to use his boat to provide a significant financial cushion helping to clean up the Long Beach area during the BP oil spill clean-up.
I don’t think that you could ever say that Chris and his family deserved the motor our church gave, but I do know that our gift, poured out abundantly like God’s grace, changed a family and gave them something to stand on.
This is in fact what I believe our church, and all churches for that matter, should be all about.
Not worrying about who deserves what – but responding to the grace you have received by pouring out love on others who deserve it as much as you did.
The truth of the matter is that you aren’t good enough to be here, as no one is good enough to be invited into the presence of God.
You can’t measure up, as even though you have left an old way of life behind in favor of a new one, perfection is something that you will never attain.
But thanks be to God – your imperfection is not something for you to hide away – as for you – God’s love is poured out abundantly – God’s grace has made you worthy – so there is no reason for you to fear anyone’s judgment, there is no reason to worry about not being good enough – all that is required is that you respond to God’s Grace by pouring out this abundant love to others who don’t deserve it either.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Philemon, page 845
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother.
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home; Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul – an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
I’ve always struggled with sermon titles, but today’s may take the cake. Today’s sermon title, bold in its vagueness, doesn’t tell you much of anything, but does at least tell you which of the three main characters from this letter I want to focus on. But to get to Philemon, we first have to deal with the other two – Paul and Onesimus.
Paul, here referred to in verse one as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, is the Apostle Paul – that great letter writer who’s letters make up such a large part of our New Testament. He wasn’t one of the disciples, in fact his relationship to Christianity began as a persecutor of the faith, but something happened and his life changed forever – rather than a great opponent of Christianity, he became her greatest supporter, evangelizing to the most distant reaches of the Roman Empire, often imprisoned for his faith, always risking his life for the good of the Gospel. In the context of this letter, Paul is the letter writer – he seems to have known Philemon well, knows this congregation that meets in his house – but is far away and imprisoned with only the slave Onesimus to help him.
Onesimus is the subject of this letter – a run-away slave belonging to Philemon – we don’t know exactly how his and the Apostle Paul’s paths met, but we do know that a strong friendship resulted from their chance encounter. Not only is this letter about Onesimus, whether Philemon will allow him to return home or will exact some sever punishment for running away; Onesimus is almost certainly the deliverer of the letter.
Can you imagine what that must have been like – to go back – to return to the scene of the crime knowing that you might well be facing your own death as punishment for running away? Onesimus is walking into the unknown, all his hope riding on a letter that his master may not even take the time to read for his anger. Onesimus is at the mercy of Philemon, and while he goes to Philemon’s house he doesn’t know how he’ll be received – like returning home after storming out, Onesimus is like a husband returning home to his wife with his tail between his legs knowing that he doesn’t deserve forgiveness but is asking for it anyway – like an immigrant who leaves the stability of home for the possibility of a new life – Onesimus is crossing the desert into a new land trusting his well being to a hope for a better life knowing full well he could die or be sent back at any time. It’s a tremendous risk that Onesimus takes here – putting his life into the hands of this letter – all his hope resting in Philemon reading it and having the courage or mercy to do as Paul asks should he even take the time to read the letter.
We may assume that Philemon does at least read it – I can’t see how the letter would have made it to us if he had just thrown it away – and while Onesimus’ life does depend on it, so much is being asked of Philemon here.
In his time Christianity was a private matter – this church met in his house, not in a big cathedral out on the public square – and we may go so far as to assume that this is where Philemon expressed his faith – that he was a Christian in his home where it was safe to be a Christian, but out in the world he was someone else. There was business to be done out in the world, slaves to be bought and sold, money to be made.
This was a time when Christianity was a fledgling religion and so much worship was done in private where people could safely express their faith without fear of judgment or ridicule.
It’s not that Philemon didn’t want to come out with his faith – it’s not that he didn’t want to be a Christian outside his home as well as within it – but these were times when faith was a private matter one kept to himself.
Not so different than today then I suppose.
Not so different from our world where so many act one way in church and another outside these walls – not so different from our world where so many are obligated to confess that we are brothers and sisters in Christ knowing full well that in our world there are still hierarchies of difference – not so different from our world where every Sunday we pray the Lord’s Prayer, for the day when our debts will be forgiven just as we forgive our debtors, while out in the real world our credit card bills are due and interest is piling up – not so different from our world where we have learned to manage our faith, living it out at times and keeping it private at others.
So it was for Philemon. He knew Paul and so he must have heard Paul say more than once that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female – he may have even believed it in his heart while his body went on living the way the world told him he could – owning slaves, managing his household, exacting punishment on the disobedient to maintain the system of power that his wealth depended on.
It was no easy thing for Philemon to even consider doing what Paul asks – go and be merciful to one runaway and you might as well give all the others permission to do the same. But more than that – word would surely spread and next thing you know every slave in the city is testing the limits of their owner’s authority.
What Paul is asking Philemon to do isn’t just to be merciful to this one man, Paul is asking Philemon to make a statement, to make his faith public, to go out into the world with his faith – to not keep the truth of the gospel confined any longer.
There’s nothing easy about it. It may sound unrelated to us – but I think we all know that there’s nothing easy about going public with what we believe in any time or place – and to think that by doing so we could actually make a difference.
Not just saying that we love our neighbor as ourselves – but really loving our neighbor, the ones we haven’t even taken the time to meet, loving them as ourselves.
Not just saying that debts will be forgiven – but really letting debts go, letting real money go.
Not just saying that we are all one in Christ, that there is no Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female, but living that way, not just in church but in the public square, at the ballot box, out in the world where we all know well and good that all men created equal may sound good but asks a whole lot, maybe more than we are willing to give.
It’s a lot to go up against the whole world like that, but it’s what Paul is asking us to do. Not reduce Christianity to a simple, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” but the full truth – that the Gospel calls us into direct opposition with systems that so many accept without question.
Enough about us – this letter is about Philemon – and we don’t know exactly how the story ends. We don’t know whether Philemon listens to Paul and treats Onesimus like a brother in Christ, or if Philemon listens to the world and treats Onesimus as the law commands.
“If he fails, it will be one more victory for rationality; one more victory for everyone who likes to see the world carry on spinning evenly and predictably; one more victory for common sense. It will be one more victory for all of us who never really tried.”1
1. Chris Heath, “An Army of One,” GQ, September 2010, 293.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Same Christ

Hebrews 13: 1-16, page 853
Keep on loving each other as brothers or sisters. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said:
“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence, “the Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
The book of Hebrews is a book about faith – a faith that leads to perseverance in light of the sufferings of the present. How the community the author of Hebrew’s addresses suffered has been debated, but regardless of the specifics, the book of Hebrews offers us guidance to hold fast to the faith when times are trying.
Like the passage from a few weeks ago in chapter 12, we are called to keep going: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
These inspirational words from chapter 12 make me think of running – but when I am running I can’t say that the inverse is true, that when I am running I think of those words from Hebrews – because when I am running all I can think about is the pain in my legs, my shortness of breath, and how good it would feel to stop and rest for a while.
My daughter Lily and I go running together now, she’s in the stroller of course, and to keep my mind occupied and away from thoughts of quitting, I’ve started listening to my IPod while I run. I download sermons or podcasts so I’ll have something to listen to and occupy my thoughts, and just last Friday while Lily and I were running I was listening to an episode of the radio show This American Life. The episode was titled “The Promised Land” and began with a commentary on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, especially the first song that snow white sings: “I’m hoping, and I’m dreaming of, the nice things he’ll say.” This song introduces Snow White and tells the audience what it is that she wants – a prince.
Snow White is not the only movie that begins this way – it’s just one of many that utilize what movie type’s call the “I wish song:”
“I want more…I want to be where the people are, I want to see, want to see’em dancing” is the song from The Little Mermaid where you learn that what she wants is to become a human, walk around on land rather than swim under the ocean, and meet a prince of her own.
Or the best is from the Wizard of Oz: “Somewhere, over the rainbow, there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.”
This theme of wishing for something, specifically a land that I’ve heard of, is one of the primary themes of Hebrews; our lesson from two weeks ago speaking of Abraham whom God had promised the Promised Land; though he never saw it, “He was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
The author of Hebrews seeks to encourage us that we might achieve the goal, and drawing from our lesson for today, the author brings attention, not only to our actions, but to the importance of our state of mind in achieving the goal.
Our state of mind matters – while I am running if my mind is focused on my body’s pain, longing to rest, I’m not going to make it very long. Or, I remember a friend on my baseball team in high school who had vowed to fast for 48 hours. The game was delayed due to rain and we had to lay out the tarp.
“Hey Todd,” I said, “how bout a stake.”
“You’re a real jerk Joe, you know that.”
“What are you talking about – I just need a stake to keep this tarp on the ground and there’s a stack of them at your feet.”
Poor Todd’s hunger kept his mind on food, and you can bet that his fast didn’t make it much longer.
Your state of mind then is what the author of Hebrews addresses here in chapter 13 – what thoughts to keep: “Keep on loving each other, do not forget the stranger, remember those in prison and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering;” as well as what you should keep your mind off: “Marriage should be honored – so you know what you should keep your mind off, and keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.”
The passage goes on to remind you to “remember your leaders,” and then makes the claim: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Yes – Christ is the same – Christ is the same calling us to love each other, to keep our minds on those strangers who wander into town looking for a place to stay and food to eat, and to never forget those who are in prison or those who are suffering.”
But just as Christ is the same – culture is the same – and culture would have you do just the opposite.
Rather than focus on the man huddled under the bridge, our culture would have you focus on the billboard selling you a nice cold drink.
Rather than focus on the prisoner, our culture would prefer that you focus on the swimsuit model peddling swimming pools.
And rather than focus on the suffering, our culture would like to sell you all the kinds of things that can keep suffering at bay.
Our state of mind then matters. What we think about matters, because it is the thoughts that go through our heads that inspire our actions and may well prevent us from getting where we want to go.
The author of Hebrews then calls us to focus on what will enable us to reach the kingdom – you’re not going to get there through adultery, so don’t think about your neighbors husband or wife, the model on TV, or the video so readily available on your computer – they will not get you where you want to go.
And you’re not going to get there by focusing on money – though our society has told you that money is exactly what you need to be thinking about, our economy just might collapse if all us consumers were satisfied – but the love of money will not get you where you need to go.
The only way we are going to get there is by keeping our thoughts on what matters – each other – the ones here who you love, the ones who wander the streets, the ones in prison who are too easy to forget, and all those who are mistreated who we would all rather turn away from.
It is by seeing your neighbor as yourself that you will know what it means to be like Christ.
It is by loving your neighbor as yourself that you will make it to the Promised Land.

Monday, August 16, 2010

When Israel was a Child

Our scripture lesson for today from the book of Hosea is one that translators have wrestled with mightily for some time. Generally our pew Bibles offer an excellent translation of the Hebrew words recorded so many years ago, but in the case of today’s passage from Hosea I believe that the New Revised Standard Version gives us a slightly more accurate translation, so today I’ll be reading from this version while I invite you to follow along in the pew Bibles.
Our 2nd Scripture Lesson for today is Hosea chapter 11: 1-11, page 642
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;
For I am God and no mortal, the holy one in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
Being a Christian isn’t supposed to be glamorous.
I’ve found myself in some pretty interesting places because of the ministry that I’ve felt called to – like many of you I’ve been to some foreign shores, but not to enjoy their beaches, to be a witness to their slums. I remember well one particular outhouse I used. It was a hole in the ground covered by a sheet of rotting plywood and crowned with a porcelain toilet. I had to go pretty bad before I could summon the courage to use it.
But this is part of the deal – you can’t go out into the world preaching the gospel through word and deed by staying isolated in the safety of your home. We Christians are called out into the world.
So like many of you I’ve been to 3rd world countries, soup kitchens, bread lines, villages of homeless people with only sheets of cardboard separating them from the elements. Hospitals, houses, and nursing homes.
There’s something unique about the air of some nursing homes – the bad ones carry with them the stench of urine, but the air in all of them is heavy with memories.
I’ve been listening to a book on tape for the last couple weeks – Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen “I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other,” the book begins – the main character narrates from an old-folks home where he has grown tired and grumpy beyond measure, terrorizing most of the nurses, starting a fist fight with another resident named McGuinty:
“I used to carry water for the elephants,” says McGuinty. I drop my fork and look up. He is positively dripping with self-satisfaction, just waiting for the girls to fawn over him. “You did not,” I say. There is a beat of silence. “I beg your pardon?” he says. “You did not carry water for the elephants.”
This conversation soon elevates to name calling until McGuinty stands up out of his wheel chair only for his legs to fail him, sending him falling to the floor.
The narrator knew that McGuinty had never worked in a circus carrying water for the elephants you see, as elephants drink too much for anyone to bring the water to them, you have to bring the elephant to the water.
In this way the book opens to reveal the story of a grumpy old man – looked over and ignored by most of the world, but those who take the time to listen find that he had lived the life of a teenager who ran away to join the circus.
We humans are tempted to disregard such things – we too often forget that what we see on the surface is only a peel – what lies beneath is life lived, heart ache, adventure, pain, joy.
We humans are often too busy to listen – but God – God remembers.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Israel I called my son.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.”
One of the most wonderful things about a funeral is that we are invited in to see a piece of such memories. Not long ago a woman died – for so long she was just the frail old woman who came to church every Sunday, sitting in the same seat near the middle isle week after week. Only in sitting down with DeeDee did I learn that she left home to become a model in New York City, married a Jewish man to the disdain of her family, and with him lived around the world – a spectacle in the Philippines on the golf course where no one had ever seen a woman take up a set of clubs.
The same is true of our friend Jim Greene. I knew he was a football star, but it was only near the end that I learned he played as a professional in Canada, coached for years at the black high school in Summerville, SC only to lose his job to the white coach when the schools integrated.
In this month’s newsletter is a story like it – in the hopes of getting to know each other a little bit better a family from the Hispanic ministry tells their story.
I think it’s a wonderful thing to do, as it’s so easy to underestimate people – and maybe that’s what some want to forget the past and leave it behind. Old heartbreaks, too much damage done to remember.
But God – God refuses to forget.
So God roars – and like birds from Egypt, like doves from the land of Assyria – the people return trembling, our lesson tells us.
Maybe it’s because they’re afraid.
Afraid of God’s wrath?
Or afraid of God’s terrible love that knows exactly who we are and loves us all the more because of it.
“That’s a mother talking,” Jane Edwards told us in Bible study this past week – and like a mother our God has been hurt by our disobedience – but who refuses to give up on the child she has loved so well, come to know more that most any ever could.
God is God and no mortal our lesson tells us – as we humans so willingly forfeit our ability to see people as people. We know some as friends, others as enemies, but God knows us all as infants once held close to the cheek.
In our God’s refusal to give up on us, in our God’s refusal to forget who we are, we see the model for the truest form of human love that we are called to emulate in a world that gives us all permission to dismiss, tear down, and ignore voices based not one who they are but the groups they represent.
It is a dangerous world that we live in today – not just because of what people are saying and doing – but because what people say and do rises to inhuman proportions when we fail to realize that all of us have a history, a story to tell, and a precious value in the eyes of God.
What we see in our lesson for today is the truth – that people are people – that all people, whether the represent a different ideology, social group, or social demographic, are individuals with hearts, souls, histories, and cheeks that have been kissed by the lips of God.
It’s easier to ignore each other when we don’t admit to ourselves our common identity in our one God – so our lesson for today demands that we honor one another, expecting to be surprised by what we hear when we do not dismiss difference too quickly.
When we do model this kind of love we prove that we were created in the image of God.
When we refuse to give up when so many would cut ties and go their separate ways.
When we determine to see beyond labels, generalizations, to see people as people with stories worth knowing.
When we determine to keep our arms open when we have every right to turn away.
Love one another then – as God first loved you, so you must love one another.