Sunday, November 24, 2013

Arriving on Different Boats

Psalm 103

        When I was four years old, my family moved from Georgia to Greensboro.   I have many stories in my collective consciousness concerning Georgia, but all were learned from hearing tales around the dinner table.  My family, especially my father loved to tell stories.  Like most families we heard the stories so many times dad would start and we could finish it from memory.  The good news is my father’s stories were not limited to his experiences.  He had and still has a keen understanding of history.  So on days like Thanksgiving we would be given a full recitation of the all the events surrounding Plymouth Rock.  Once I asked, “Did our ancestors come to the New World on the Mayflower?”  He would shake his head and say, “No, we arrived on a different boat, but we should still give thanks to God.” 
        When I was nine, my family moved to Hampton, Virginia.  Dad had spent part of his childhood in Martinsville so this sparked a whole new set of stories.  Exploratory trips were taken to Williamsburg, Yorktown, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Appomattox and Mitchie Tavern.  On Thanksgiving, the stories reverted from Plymouth Rock to Jamestown. I can remember Dad telling us about those Virginians who gave thanks to God 14 years before the arrival of the Pilgrims.  He would brag that Myles Standish had nothing on John Smith and those 108 hardy settlers who arrived in 1607.  We visited the settlement, and dad took us aboard the replicas of the Susan Constant, Godspeed and the Discovery.  I figured one of these ships must have been my family’s transportation from England to the New Colonies so again I asked, “Were these my ancestors?”  Again he responded, “No, we arrived on a different boat, but we should still give thanks to God.”                 
        At some point in time I figured my father had information with which he was not quite willing to divulge.  But I was persistent.  “Dad, what boat brought us to America?”  He looked at me and said, “We are from Georgia.  Our story is not quite as heroic as John Smith or the Pilgrims. Then Dad took a deep breath and shared the narrative of our heritage.  In the 1729 an Englishmen named James Oglethorpe had a friend die of smallpox in a debtor’s prison. Oglethorpe decided there had to be a better solution than prison for folks who had stepped outside the law.  With the help of George I, Oglethorpe established a colony at the present site of Savannah.  The site was made up exclusively of inmates from English and Scottish prisons.  These men and their families worked off their debts as indentured servants.  Once the debt was paid they were given parcels of land in the new established colony of Georgia. 
        After hearing the story I asked if he knew what my ancestor’s crimes might have been.  He smiled and said, “They were Highland Scots.  I imagine they were sheep thieves, but they still gave thanks to God.”
        Today on the eve of Thanksgiving, we each claim stories concerning the boats our ancestors sailed to reach this land.  Perhaps there is someone here who can trace their linage back to Jamestown or Plymouth Rock.  Maybe your ancestors and mine shared dried fish and hardtack on their way to Savannah.  Possibly your ancestors rejoiced on seeing the Statute of Liberty rising out of New York Harbor.  We all have friends whose ancestors cursed the loss of liberty when they entered Charleston Harbor in chains.  We lie to ourselves if we think the glory of national endeavors out weighs the shame of our corporate sins.  It is all part of our history.  And history serves little purpose when told incorrectly.
Our ancestors arrived at this place by a variety of boats.  Many crossed an Ocean; some crossed the desert; a few where already here before the boats arrived.  We all have heard our unique stories around the dinner table.  But today, despite our different histories, our boats have docked at this place to give thanks to God.
I look out at this wonderful group who has gathered to sing and give thanks.  You make this place sacred by your presence.  Not only do we come from different lands, we come from a variety of different denominations. Baptist and Methodist have docked their boats, here, to praise God, together.  Catholics and Pentecostals have docked their boats, here, to praise God, together.  Episcopalians and Lutherans have docked their boats, here, to praise God together.  Presbyterians, Unitarians, Church of Christ have docked their boats, here, to praise God, together.  If I have overlooked someone I know you will forgive me because today we have not come to be recognized, we have come that God may be glorified.  We have not come to sing our praise, we have come to sing God’s praise.  We have come to fill our hearts.  We have come to be together. We came that we might give thanks to God.
How appropriate that on this eve of thanksgiving, this service of praise, this service of remembrance, we should be regaled with words of the 103rd Psalm.  “Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within bless God’s Holy name.   Bless the Lord O my soul and all that is within me give thanks for God’s grace.”  Today; together as one; we dare to lift our voices in praise and thanksgiving to:
The God who forgives,
The God who heals,
The God who redeems,
                The God who offers steadfast love and mercy.”
Today; together as one; we dare to lift our voices in praise and thanksgiving to:
who saved the Pilgrims from the harshness of winter;
who revived the Virginians from the dismay of disease;
who rescued the Georgians from the disgrace of prison;
who offered safe harbor for anyone seeking freedom.
Today, together as one;
We dare to lift our voices in praise and thanksgiving to:
who abhorrers and eradicates human bondage;
who offers a path in the wilderness to the sojourner;
who responds to the cries of the oppressed;
who restores exiles to the land of their birth.
                        We arrived on different boats,
                But today, together as one, we give thanks to God.
        Our histories and our stories are different.  To quote our President, “We are the sons and daughters of the faceless men and woman, farmers and slaves, tailors and butchers, soldiers and sailors, who labored, constructing lives for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, dreaming of ways to perfect our imperfect union.”
                We arrived on different boats,
But today, together as one, we give thanks to God.

The Psalmist warns us that our days are like grass,
        We will flourish like the flowers of the field,
                We will disappear with the fickleness of the wind.
Assyria has come and gone.
        Babylon has come and gone.
                Greece, Rome, the Ottoman and British Empires
                        Have come, and are gone.
                                The United States has come,
                                        And one day it will be gone,
But the steadfastness of the Lord,
is from everlasting to everlasting.
We came on different boats,
        But today, together as one, we give thanks to God.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
        May God’s grace give us grace.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
        May God’s Hope give us Hope.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
        May God’s Love give us Love.
Bless the Lord, O may soul.
My the God of Grace, Hope and Love,
Bind us together,
In this one boat,
                As today,
We give thanks to God.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

God's Creative Imagination

Isaiah 65:17-25

As I sit and write this sermon it has come to my attention there are 40 shopping days left till Christmas.  Those of you who are Biblical scholars know that the number 40 has great significance. Noah was on the Ark for 40 days, the children of Israel were in the wilderness for 40 years, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before beginning his ministry.  The number forty is not to be taken literally. It is the Biblical way of saying, “a long time”. But for those of us who have children and grandchildren, forty days will be here in no time at all.  There are so many decisions. Do I get them something practical? Would the children rather have money? Do I need to spend the same amount on each grandchild? Most importantly, do I dare make any decision without first checking with Deb?
    There are 40 shopping days left till Christmas.  What sort of dreams and visions do you have for the coming days?
        Our Isaiah text is all about dreams and visions.  The writer of 3rd Isaiah is all too aware of the length of the number 40.  His generation had spent 40 years in exile, roaming the streets of Babylon, waiting for that precious moment when God’s grace would allow them to travel back to Jerusalem.  The writer was familiar with that marvelous song of hope that serves as the eloquent prelude to Second Isaiah.  “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.  Cry to her that the penalty has been paid for all her sins.  Through the wilderness the Lord has prepared a way.  Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain shall be made low and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”   This song had given him and his generation optimism for the coming years.  They traveled west with the excitement of building a new city, starting new lives and living in the light of the Lord. The exiles made that perilous trip across the desert, gleefully expecting the transformation of Jerusalem to be the simple task of reassembling a few bricks.
        But the hopefulness of Second Isaiah gave way to the reality of a ruined city.    What those exiles discovered was a disaster.  The walls around the city no longer existed. Not a hand had been lifted to restore the temple.  The Jerusalem of their dreams quickly turned out to be a nightmare.  Optimism turned to fear. Hope reversed to pessimism. When one reads Isaiah 56-59, it is hard to imagine anything rising from the ashes of that tragedy.   Yet by chapter 65, something has happened.  The writer of third Isaiah once again was given a reason to dream and as you might have guessed, the source of his hope stemmed from his faith.  In a vision, our writer encounters the very imagination of the Almighty. In lyrics that still ring in our ears, the poet describes Zion’s coming glory.  “God is in the process of doing a new thing.  God is creating a new heaven and earth. The former things shall not be remembered.  God will transform Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight”.   The poet spoke of a time when peace would reign, a time when the inhabitants of the city would be righteous and a time when good tidings would lift the poor and the broken hearted.    Listen again to his words.  “Everyone will  own a home and harvest fruit from their garden.  Children will live to be adults and the elderly will be respected.” 
For a people born in slavery, a people who had heard tales of children slaughtered by their enemies, a people who had seen their elderly cast aside, this was a radical vision. People who have suffered, people who experienced grave disappointments are not easily swayed by words.  To transform someone who has never risen out of the dust of their own misery takes more than wishful thinking. It must be acknowledged, then believed and finally lived. The writer of Third Isaiah believed that once the people of Jerusalem visualized life’s possibilities through God’s eyes, a radical transformation would emerge within their thoughts and they would live as if nothing other than God’s covenantal word mattered.
That is a deep-seated and dangerously radical thought.  Who here has not had their hopes raised only to be crushed? Just a week ago people in the Philippines were preparing to celebrate Christmas. Their dreams and visions centered on a promise of peace and justice that was promised to us 2,000 years ago. What are they dreaming about today?
Hope can be a dangerous mistress.   Let’s face the facts.  We don’t have to pick up a newspaper or listen to the murmurs from last week’s election to know that many folks feel they are slogging their way through complicated and difficult days.  Some find it impossible to see the world as anything other than a survival of the fittest.  Yet this passage from Isaiah serves to remind our weary and suspicious minds that God has always encouraged us to strive to create beauty, and goodness and holiness even in the midst of our chaos.
Please note the words I used. “God has always encouraged us.” That is a far cry from saying, “God will do it for us.” Consider the following. If God is completely responsible for the human experiment then the first step in moving away from a belief in God begins with an examination of the human condition. Helplessness can overcome any amount of optimism. Then it is only a matter of time until we blame God for our present circumstances and reassess the very foundations of our faith system. This process leads to two highly relevant questions. “If God is not involved in transforming the world, what good is God?” This is followed by the equally volatile suggestion, “If God’s transforming action is no longer evident, is this not proof of the non-existence of God?”
Many folks have reached the conclusion that proving the non-existence of God is easier and far more logical than grappling with the possibility that this mystery we call God my still be relevant. You will be happy to know I have I yet to join this group. Not only am I continually overwhelmed by God’s creative genius, I have not succumbed to holding God responsible for the madness that dominates our headlines.
It would be so easy to judge God based on the desires of my heart. If I were God there would be no more wars, no more hurricanes, no more school shootings, no more poverty, no more disease, no more madness. What about you? If you could be God for a day what would be first on your priority list.  Knowing that all of you are a compassionate people, I suspect your desires mirror everything God desires for humankind. So what is the problem? Why will we wake up tomorrow to another tragedy?
You know the answer before it leaves my lips. God placed us in charge. Unfortunately, we who celebrate freewill more than life itself are driven and derailed by memories. We remember the Alamo, the Maine, Pearl Harbor and 911. Tucked deep in our psyche is the idea there is someone out there trying to get us. It might an Islamic terrorist; it might be a politician in Washington; it might be a stranger that lives in the neighborhood; it might be our brother-in-law. Regardless who it is I believe our level of trust toward other humans is not great enough to create a society based on God’s desire for justice and compassion. We have memories and those memories are not easily reconciled.
When the exiles from Babylon arrived in Jerusalem, do you know the first thing the new occupants did? They kicked out all the current residents. They believed only those who had suffered captivity could be trusted. They believed the ones left behind must have collaborated with the enemy. Those memories fueled distrust, this distrust forced long time residents from their homes, and this expulsion left the city with too few folks to build a wall in a timely manner. Memories derailed the task at hand.
So God announced, “Together we will build a society were children are treasured, the elderly are honored, folks live in the homes they build, and each family eats from the gardens they cultivate. But in order for this to happen, you are going to forget the past and embrace the opportunity of today.”
So how did that workout? You know the answer. Look at the human equation or should I say human divisions today.  Forget the political impasses that dominate our headlines. Forget Liberal and Conservative; Forget Palestinians and Jews; Forget North Korea and Iran; Forget Global Warming. Just think about your life and that one irreconcilable issue that cannot be resolved. You know what it is. It fills a good part of your brain and tears up a bigger part of your heart. You can’t let it go and I dare say perhaps you don’t want to let it go. That memory has become a permanent part of your psyche. You feast on that memory not realizing you are the one being devoured.
        How can we move toward healthy resolutions if we refuse to place our memories aside? I know the famous quote, “Those who forget the past end up repeating the past.” But I also know fixating on the past seldom leads to new and creative ways to mend a broken world.
“God is creating a new heaven and a new earth.  The former things shall not be remembered or come to past.” Christmas is less than 40 days away.  In Christ, God did a new thing. In Christ, God desires us to do a new thing. During the next 40 days we are probably going to spend a load of money on children, grandchildren, spouses and even ourselves. Why not spend some time on examining our memories? Keep the good ones. But let go of the ones that hurt and destroy your inner peace. Trust in the possibilities of tomorrow.  If the past controls our future and our past is controlled by our fears, how can tomorrow ever be any different, unless, for the next 40 days, we go a little crazy. Imagine a world where the lion and the lamb lie down together. Imagine the possibility of working toward God’s peaceable kingdom, perhaps not in the world, perhaps not in the nation, but just in you own little hemisphere. Imagine letting go of your hurtful memories in order to create a better future. Imagine restoring just one relationship in the next 40 days. Imagine what kind of Christmas you might celebrate if you forget the past and welcome an old advisory to a new future.                                         
There are forty days left until Christmas. What sort of dreams and visions do you have for the coming days?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

All God's Children Got Clothes

Luke 20:27-38

        During our vacation Deb and I visited a dear friend in Asheville. Grady had served as my clerk of session in Clinton and was a godsend to every shut-in in our congregation. She moved to a retirement center in Asheville a couple of years ago and we have remained close.
        About a month ago, Grady’s daughter called informing me Grady had suffered from an extensive heart attack. Thanks to the quick response of a rescue team and the medical staff she survived.  But the experience was not without excitement. On reaching the medical facility, her heart stopped and Grady was shocked twice to restart that vital organ.
        When Deb and I arrived at her apartment, we expected to find a frail invalid covered in blankets. Instead we discovered our old friend, bouncing around her apartment, eager to tell us about the new adventures she planned for the coming months. After the usual pleasantries, Grady turned serious. “Louie I have a theological question. When they got me to the hospital, I blacked out and my heart stopped beating. My daughter thought I was gone. They hit me with the paddles and I came back from where ever I went but I have to tell you, I have no memory of seeing any kind of white light. It was just darkness. What on earth do you think that means?”
        I wish I had a dollar for every time I have been asked about heaven and hell. I read somewhere when Dante reinvented hell by writing The Divine Comedy, church attendance exploded. No one wanted to risk going to the place Dante had so vividly described. Likewise, when a person who has no religious affiliation has an out of body experience, he suddenly becomes an expert on heaven.  That amazes me. My personal Bible has over 1600 pages. This includes the 27 glossy photographs with circles and arrows and explanations on the back of each one. In those 1600 pages the word “heaven” is mentioned only a handful of times and it usually refers to the sky which covers the earth. “Hell” or to be more exact “Gehenna” receives even less Biblical interest. The “Christian” development of the idea of Hell happened during the first and second century and its formation was highly influenced by the Greco-Roman culture. Truth is Hell is mentioned only in passing by Jesus but it does get a bit of attention in the Book of Revelation.
        I believe we have given heaven and hell a lot more airtime than they deserve. Might I remind you the resurrection of Jesus is the center piece of the Christian faith. Resurrection is nothing less than the act of a new creation, signaling the divide between the old and new world and inaugurating a new order of life. Without the resurrection of Christ there would be no Christianity. Jesus might have been seen as a great rabbi. Perhaps a new sect would have followed his interpretation of the Torah, but the sect would have remained Jewish. The significance of the resurrection of Christ, to paraphrase First Corinthians 15, is death cannot hold the source of life.  I have no intention of down playing the significance some folks place on of heaven. But I would like to suggest discussions of heaven and hell complicate rather than compliment the New Testament message, that being the significance of God’s love as understood in the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
To quote Douglas John Hall, “If there is anything distinctive about Christianity, it is that this faith is focused, not on general theism, not on religious principles, not on ethical teachings, not on ritual observances, not on heavenly appearances or worldly observations, but on a life, a life lived under the same basic conditions that affects all life. Faith perceives what transcended this particular life. We believe this life revealed an eternal love in which all life is wrapped. Because of this life, we believe all life is eternal. We are not surprised or threatened if we see this same eternal love manifested in other places. Yet we cling to this particular life for our universal understanding of love. Our faith is bound to this one we call Christ but because we believe the way to the universal is through this particular man we dare to call Son of God.”
        Now that is a mouthful. But it is a glorious mouthful. Hall celebrates the resurrection of Christ. Hall, without speaking of heaven or hell, expounds on a God who created something out of nothing. Through the faithfulness, love, and commitment of God, where there was once only chaos, God created life. This belief in God’s grace informs the biblical story from beginning to end.     This is such good news and should be our emphasis as we share our faith. But we get sidetracked by rabbit holes as we explore our curiosities concerning heaven and hell.
        A perfect example is the text this morning. Jesus was in the Temple just days before his death. The Sadducees, a religious group of great importance, came to Jesus with only death on their minds. They asked tricky questions hoping Jesus would utter some heretical words justifying their claims that Jesus was a dangerous man. They bombarded Jesus with questions such as, “Where do you get your authority? Did the baptism of John come from heaven? Should we pay taxes to Rome?” The questions came fast and furious but Jesus never answered in a way that was in conflict with Torah.
Almost in desperation one of the Sadducees asked, “Moses wrote if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife with no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise the children in honor of is brother. What if there were seven brothers and each died childless. Would not each brother be obligated to marry the widow? Then when the widow died, who would be her husband when she arrived in heaven?”
        This is such a ridiculous question asked by a Sadducees did not even believe in heaven. But it was also a dangerous question because many of his religious counterparts did recognize an afterlife. No matter how Jesus responded, someone was going to be upset. All ears strained as Jesus spoke.    “Moses speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. God is not God of the dead but rather of the living.”
         Game, Set, Match. The contest was over. Jesus had taken the argument to a place neither religious group was prepared to explore. Jesus affirmed from beginning to end, God’s story is about a new creation while the Pharisees and the Sadducees were arguing over immortality. Is that such a bid deal? Actually it is bigger than a big deal. Immortality is based on a doctrine of human nature that denies death. Resurrection is based on a doctrine of God which says even though we die, God restores us to life beyond out imagination.
        Unfortunately this text and others like it peak the curiosity of those who are doing everything but dying to discover answers about heaven. They jump on the questions of the Sadducees while all but ignoring the comment offered by Jesus. Our curiosity is intrigued with the unknown and we ask, “What will heaven be like? What will we look like? Will we know Uncle Henry? Will our eyesight be restored? Will we recognize each other?” Those and a thousand other similar questions concerning our immortality cross our inquisitive minds. I have to be honest I have not discouraged this. Often, when a family is struggling with the reality of death I have mentioned the deceased is now with family members. I don’t know why I say this. I certainly have no Biblical proof for that kind of statement. I guess it is a way to offer comfort to a grieving family.
The truth is the Bible doesn’t answer all our questions despite our illusions that it should. But what the Bible does tell us is that God is faithful, God’s mercy is immeasurable, and God’s love is beyond our understanding.
41 years ago I was a long haired college graduate who had just been drafted. In my eyes I might as well have been dead. I marched into a barbershop and received the same treatment of a thousand other newly minted G.I.’s. I was then issued my uniform. With my new haircut and olive fatigues I was indistinguishable from the other 200 men in my company.  We soon came face to face with our new drill sergeant.  I still remember his words. “I don’t care if you flunked out of high school or finished college. I don’t care who your mother was. I don’t care if you were rich or poor, black, brown, yellow or white. Now you are green and you belong to me.”
A song from the African-American experience claims, “I got a robe, you got a robe, all God’s children got a robe. When I get to heaven I am going to put on my robe and shout all over God’s heaven.” Maybe that is all we need to know about heaven. God has a robe waiting for each of us. When we put it on, we will belong to God for the rest of eternity.