Sunday, May 31, 2015

Searching for God

Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:9


        I am exaggerating, but it seems at least half of the sermons preached at Presbytery by a candidate seeking ordination contain a reference to the call of Isaiah. You probably know the story as well as I. Isaiah, before becoming a prophet, entered the Temple to pray. Once there, he experienced a vision that would leave Stephen Spielberg gasping for air. A six-winged angel appeared singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Host. The whole world is filled with the glory of God.”

Isaiah did exactly what most of us would have done. He screamed, “Woe is me! I am not worthy to be standing here.” 

Then the angel placed a live coal on the mouth of Isaiah and the soon to be prophet heard the voice of God ask, “Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?”

Isaiah responded, “Here am I, send me.”

Once the candidate introduces the story, she proceeds to weave an elaborate tale describing the exact moment she knew, without doubt, that God had issued her a call to ordained ministry. The stories are fascinating. Once in a while the call comes during a personal struggle with alcohol or drugs. Sometimes it comes during a Crusade for Christ rally. Sometimes it comes shortly after becoming disillusioned with Crusade for Christ. Occasionally it happens in a moment of solitude, sometimes in a moment of crisis. More often than not, it comes at a church camp or youth retreat. The stories are vividly real and no one listening has any reason to doubt the motivation for the person’s call to ministry stemmed from a holy moment.  Yet remarkably, when I ask colleagues to share their ‘Come to Jesus moment’, most shake their heads and say, “I don’t remember.”

While we place a high priority on those hallowed epiphanies when one hears the voice of God, the truth is the Road to Damascus is on very few of our faith travelogues. We practically apologize for being raised in a Christian home as if we have committed some kind of religious crime. As we grow older, we become comfortable talking about seeing God in the sunset, or hearing God’s voice in the cry of a baby, but we never really consider those as holy announcements from the Almighty.

While everyone loves the call of Isaiah, I find myself more comfortable with the story of Nicodemus. Without a doubt he grew up in a religious home and could recite the Ten Commandments before he was three. Nicodemus feasted on stories of Sarah, Moses, Ruth, Joshua, and Ezekiel. When it came to Bible sword drills, no one dared to challenge Nico. He knew the Torah from right to left and back again. Everyone recognized he would be a Rabbi. Folks figured he was called by God at birth.

So why couldn’t Nicodemus see God when Jesus was standing right in front of him? Maybe if Jesus had showed off a wing or two the identification would have been easier? We are so familiar with his story we find it hard to give Nicodemus a break. We forget Jesus did not reveal his real identity. We forget in the eyes of most folks Nicodemus was the teacher and Jesus the student. Most importantly, we forget that the Southern Baptist had not yet popularized the phrase “born again”. Nicodemus dared to ask the question that is on the lips of every seeker, “How can I find God?”

The answer Nicodemus received was the last answer that would have ever crossed his theologically trained mind. Jesus said, “To see God, you have got to start all over again. You have to be reborn.”

Nicodemus reacted exactly as I and I suspect many of you would. He looked Jesus right in the eye and said, “Are you kidding? How can I undo what has already been done?”

I have never been real comfortable with the term ‘born again’. I realize millions of people wear that label proudly and rightly so. But I am among the tens of millions that has never had the Billy Graham experience where I was swept up in the majesty of a divine moment and instantly became God’s servant.

My journey has not been so dramatic. It has been and continues to be a slow, winding walk on a not so level path. There have been highs and there have been lows. There have been times of immense confidence followed by moments of doubt and dismay. Even now, after 40 plus years of ordination I still see myself in a transformational process yearning for a divine moment to wash away all my doubts.

I get caught up in the theoretical, the academic, and the logical explanations for an illogical concept. Like Nicodemus, I want hard data that can be exhibited as proof of that which is immensely improvable. I not only want to witness God, I want to see the kingdom of God in action.

Maybe I should open my eyes as well as my brain.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of the summer she decided to use only public transportation. Living in Atlanta this newfound virtue was not all that difficult. But then she got an invitation to speak in Augusta. Taylor decided this shouldn’t present a problem since the Greyhound made regular trips up and down I-20. She rationalized riding on the bus would give her ample time to research her topic, “Discovering the Kingdom of God.” With her Walkman and a couple of theological journals, Brown sat down in the front of the bus. Her first discovery about bus travel was white middle class women don’t take the bus much anymore. Listen to the journey through the very words of the woman who experienced it.

Once we got underway, it was like a block party on wheels. People asked each other their names and they tried to figure out if they knew any of the same people in Augusta. They passed fried chicken around and fell asleep on each other’s shoulders. They held each other’s screaming babies and traded stories that made them howl with laughter, while the middle class white lady, sitting up front all by herself, turned up the volume on her Walkman and read her journals about the kingdom of God.       (stop)

Last Sunday afternoon I was sitting with my son-in-law and salivating over the ribs he was slow cooking on the grill, thinking how great it was to relax after two services and a Sunday School class. Zach obviously was not reading my mind because he remarked, “Even with three children flying around me, I always experience God when we are here for worship. I can see how much people love and care for each other. It is a holy place, filled with holy words and songs.”

We don’t offer six-winged angels or a sanctuary filled with smoke. We don’t promise a personal conversation with Jesus over how to be born again. But we are here, in this cozy little room, each on a different journey, each with different stories, together, leaning on both God’s arms and the shoulders of our neighbor, together; silently, joyfully, prayerfully, tearfully, searching for a holy moment, together; and when the hour is over, many of us don’t want to leave.

 Is this Heaven? ………………No, it’s not even Iowa.

But we are here. And when two are three are gathered together……Well, you know what happens.      

To God be the glory, Amen.               

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Old Men......Dreaming

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21

       I unashamedly admit one of my favorite American writers is Cormac McCarthy.  Early on he wrote classics such as All the Pretty Horses and Twin Cities of the Plain.  These were stories about young men dreaming about things they could hardly understand.  As McCarthy got older, and darker, he wrote No Country for Old Men, followed by his masterpiece, The Road.  My favorite quote by McCarthy is, “Where all is known, no narrative is possible.”  I suspect that quote says everything about my love of the Bible. McCarthy speaks to our text this morning when he writes, “When you dream of some world that never was or will never be, you have given up.  Therefore dream of what was and of what might be again.”

       I place a high value on dreams.  I am not referring to the stuff that happens in your sub-consciousness as you sleep.  I am talking about an active imagination that remembers yesterday and celebrates the possibility of tomorrow. 

       Ezekiel was a dreamer.  He was also a priest to a helpless and hopeless people who had lost their homes and families.  One might easily forgive Ezekiel if he had spent his entire ministry doing crisis counseling.  That is something the exiles in Babylon could have certainly used. A lament that fell from the lips of this inconsolable people was,

              Our bones are dried up,

              Our hope is lost,

              We are cut off completely.


       Ezekiel’s fellow exiles were at the bottom of the well.  They were living but as good as dead.  Words of reassurance could not cut through their despair. They could not imagine anything good evolving from their experience.  Ezekiel invited them to view reality through the eyes of God. They were asked to believe that life was about to be transformed from death. In the midst of the darkest moment in their history Ezekiel wanted his people to discover the ever shining, ever inspiring, light of God.

       The vision began in the valley of death.  Ever been there?  Of course you have.  While today is Pentecost, tomorrow is Memorial Day.  I remember as if it were yesterday, the first time I visited the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington.  I had heard about the impact The Wall had on folks, but I thought I was beyond the memories and feelings that conflict stirred within me.   I went to the directory and looked up the names of a couple friends from college.  Then I proceeded to the section where I hoped to find their names.  As I started down the slight incline, my legs become heavy as I was overwhelmed by the mass of humanity on that granite wall.  On reaching the mid-point, emotions I thought long ago resolved overwhelmed me and my only desire was to reach the end of the memorial.  As I started up, it was as if I was trying to escape quicksand.  The harder I struggled the deeper I sank.  Eventually I stepped off the path, sat down in the grass and wept. I was filled with uncontrollable remorse and overcome with emptiness.  I had visited the valley of death and it had left me barren…. void …..lifeless.

       We have all experienced such a wall.  Nothing that anyone could say or do has much of an impact when we are in our personal valley of death.  Yet, when we are ready, each person, each generation, needs to hear dry bones can live again.  The people of Judah were no exception.  While they were void inside, when they looked into God’s eyes, they experienced a truth that turned loss into hope.

       “Speak, breath of God. Speak, and say, “Breathe on these slain that they might live.”  The breath of God…. the wind of God…… the creating power of God has never been limited by worldly vision.  The author of that magnificent poem in Genesis wrote, “The earth was chaotic and darkness covered the face of the deep yet the wind of God swept through the waters and there was light.”  Ezekiel believed the holy wind that creates could also become the sacred wind that restores.  Ezekiel proclaimed that this wind, this spirit of God could transform even the dead bones of Israel into a living, breathing, liberated people.  And he was proven right.

       Today we are not here to celebrate the restoration of Israel but rather the day of Pentecost.  It is hard not to notice the parallels. The disciples were completely void of life following the death of Jesus.  Their leader was gone, their hope non-existent.  Discouraged and uninspired, they gathered in the Upper Room, their own Valley of Death, to say their good-byes and return to their former lives.   In the midst of a stillness that was not to be confused with tranquility, their bereavement was interrupted by the wind, the very breathe of God, penetrating the walls of their closed quarters.  The darkness that pressed into every corner of their empty souls was exposed and then expunged by a flame that burned with the eternal truth, “You are not alone.  Your God lives.”

       This sudden emergence of holy fire must have almost given them a coronary.  Folks can get comfortable in their grief.  It can lead to a complacency that excuses us from further engagements in life’s complex endeavors.   We spend our entire existence on the playing field and suddenly, torn by circumstances out of our control, we find comfort on the sidelines.  We watch, rather than participate.  We complain rather than becoming agents for change.  Some even welcome their own demise, actually embracing the Valley of Death.  Into this darkness, into this lifeless existence, the Holy Wind dares enter in an act of defiance that reminds us God is always in the process of creating life even in the midst of our chaos.

       Most of us are, how to I politely say this,  mature enough to remember when Paul Simon pinned these words:

              When you are weary, feeling small,

              When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.

              I’m on your side.

              When times get rough and friends can’t be found,

              Like a bridge over troubled water,

              I‘ll lay me down.


       While I love those words, they fall far short of describing the transforming Spirit of God.  The Pentecost explosion did not occur because God built a bridge over the world’s waters of discontent.  God jumps right into the currents of our lives. God steps within our raging souls. God takes our pain, our confusion, our discord and even our disbelief and says, “Let us wade together in the waters of your troubled soul.”

       What else could have inspired Peter to walk into the streets of Jerusalem and proclaim, “Your youth will have visions and your old men will dream dreams.  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”   It took a lot more than courage for Peter to kick-start Christianity.  It took a Holy Wind, a Holy Spirit, a Holy Word that promised God would not send Peter into the darkness alone.  My friends:

       The God of creation,

               the God of resurrection,

                     Walks amidst our Valley of Death.

       The God of dreams,

              The God of visions,

                     Fashions hope out of our nightmares.

       The God of Easter,

              The God of Pentecost,



                                  But never conforms,

                                         To death’s limited imagination.

We might think we are old,

       We might complain about being on our last legs,

              But we who can still dream,

Remember what was,

       Remember what might be again.

Remember Creation,

       Remember Easter,

              Remember Pentecost.

When we remember,

We believe,

When we believe,

We dream,

When we dream,

       We dream of

God’s Holy Wind,

                     God’s Holy Flame,

                           God’s Holy Words,

                                   FEAR NOT;

                                         I AM WITH YOU;



       Take that promise.

              Sing it in your personal valley of death.

                     Replace your black wardrobe

                           And put on something red.

Then listen for the Wind,

Listen for the Word. 


              And Dream.



To God be the glory.                                 Amen



Sunday, May 17, 2015

What Ever Happened to the Man also Known as Justus?

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26


One of my grandfathers was a Presbyterian Elder. He was also many other things including the superintendent of the cotton mill in Cedartown, Georgia. But in my heart, and I believe in the hearts of those who knew him best, one of his proudest accomplishments was being elected an elder and serving as Clerk of the First Presbyterian Church.

Until I reread this passage in Acts, I never thought much about the folks that ran for elder against my grandfather and lost. We are pretty civil in our election of officers today. We have a nominating committee that prepares a slate with the exact number of folks needed. People are called in advance and asked if they will serve. When the names are placed before the congregation, there is no resistance and the election is a formality. That is not the way it used to be done. I have been a member of a church and I have served churches where the election of elders and deacons was a process that could be drawn out over two or three weeks. A slate was presented to the congregation. There were always a greater number of nominees than available slots. Ballots were cast and in some churches a person had to receive 50% of the votes to be elected. Often the results remained private until I could contact the folks who were not elected. Those visits were not always pleasant. It is difficult to be asked to run for the office of elder or deacon, prayerfully consider the opportunity, agree to run and then not be chosen. We know the stories of those who are elected. I could list dozens of elders who have influenced my life before and after my ordination. What about those who were not chosen? What of those who were never asked? The church, be it local or universal, is made up of many folks whose stories are seldom remembered, except by one or two, and to those individuals, the forgotten are silent saints.

Who on earth was the man “some knew as Joseph, others called him Barsabbas, but seemed to go by the name Justus?” Nobody knows! He is not mentioned in any of the gospels, and is not spoken of again in the Book of Acts. But for one critical moment, Joseph, “known as Barsabbas, but called Justus”, was at the center of the conversation.

One hundred and twenty men gathered with Peter and the rest of the original disciples to select an Apostle. Because of the significance of the number 12, remaining eleven apostles was never considered. Peter set the ground rules. Because the original disciples were chosen by Jesus, the man selected had to be someone who had witnessed the entire ministry of God’s son. This person had to be someone who heard the sermons, grappled with the parables, witnessed the miracles and lived with the transition of Jesus from baptism to resurrection.

The 120 men eventually picked two candidates, Joseph, called Barsabbas, but known as Justus and Matthias. In order to decide which of the two was to be selected, lots were cast. It was a long established Hebrew tradition that rocks or dice with symbols on each side were rolled to determine the will of God. Once the dice were cast, the decision was considered holy.

On this ordinary day, between the ascension of Jesus and the arrival of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost, the roll of the dice selected Matthias to fulfill the role vacated by Judas. Joseph, called Barsabbas, but better known as Justus became the answer to a Biblical Trivia question. Truth is, before the scripture was read this morning, most of you had never heard of the man called Justus by any name.

Did he just disappear from the face of the earth? After three years of following Jesus, his big chance arrived, only to be squashed when the dice revealed snake eyes. I can’t begin to imagine his disappointment but neither can I imagine him retreating from his relationship with Christ. He didn’t ask to be an Apostle. He was put up for nomination by folks who had witnessed his faith in action. Nothing had really changed. Joseph Barsabbas, but better known as Justus could resume his more familiar role of one who was never in the spotlight, making sure everything was always done properly.

Every church I have ever served has had a Joseph called Barsabbas, but also known as Justus. Their voice is seldom heard. They sometimes get nominated for elder but never survive the first round of consideration. They might sing in the choir, but they are usually an alto or bass. They seem to always show up for a workday. They seldom miss church and regularly attend Sunday School although they never have a need to speak. They are always around, pitching in without having to be asked, yet many folks have to pull out the church’s pictorial directory to remember their name. But someone knows who they are because once, at the most appropriate moment, your own personal Joseph called Barsabbas, who was known as Justus, stepped out of the shadows and made a quiet statement in your spiritual development.

Play along with me for a moment. I want you to take out a pencil or pen. If you don’t have one there should be plenty in the pew racks. On the front of your bulletin I want you to write down the name of someone who quietly became a mentor to you in your spiritual development. It could be a Sunday School teacher from the past. It could be someone whose quiet direction you have admired from afar. It could even be someone with whom you became engaged in deep conversations of faith. I suspect we all have someone who spiritually helped us become who we are.

Has everyone written a name down? If so, turn to your neighbor and share the story of your silent saint.

I am hearing some great conversations. Is anyone willing to share their story?

(A time for conversation)

Sometimes in life it seems like we are on the wrong end of the draw. Maybe we were up for an important position, maybe it was a new job, maybe it was just the last bunch of bananas in the grocery store and someone spied them just before us. We end up being second best. The next time you find yourself being in the position of Joseph known as Barsabbas but called Justus, remember the stories you heard this morning. Also remember tradition tells us that Joseph, known as Barsabbas but called Justus became a Bishop in the early Christian Church. Each October 30th Joseph of Eleutheropolis is celebrated as one of the Saints of the Church.

Being second does not mean your life ends. REMEMBER THAT PERSON OTHERS OVERLOOKED who made an impact on your life. Then go forward. Put the past behind you. Look for an opportunity to touch someone who needs a quiet voice or a comforting hand of assurance.

As a prayer of praise on the count of three, together let’s shout the name of the person written on our bulletin.

One, two, three …………. May God be praised.    Amen.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Gospel According to Pi

I John 5:1-5


        A few years ago a book that was making the rounds was Life of Pi by Yann Martel. You might remember it as a strange but compelling tale of a young boy from India who survives a shipwreck only to find himself on a raft with a collection of animals from his father’s zoo.  But before Pi and his family board the ill-fated vessel, the boy had an encounter with the complexities of religious thought. Being Indian, Pi’s family was Hindu, although his father, a zoologist, pretty much considered religion a waste of time. Pi begins to explore the world of theology on his own. As a Hindu he considered life to be very important. The purpose of his journey was to discover “truth” and avoid the untruths that kept him from being united with The Ultimate Reality. Pi understood to accomplish this he would have to live many lives, learning from the experiences of each former life as he struggled to find the correct path to truth. 

Along the path he met a Catholic priest. Pi had never encountered a Christian before although he had heard rumors about this strange group that had no problem eating beef. Pi’s encounters with the priest were difficult because the focus of what the priest believed was based on one story. Hindus loved stories and had a different story for every situation in life. Many of the stories revolved around animals and their human-like traits. But the story the priest told was about a man who was God’s son. The priest told the boy that God sent his son to die for the sins of the world. Because of The One, the many were saved and ushered into heaven. In Christianity the sacrifice of the Son allowed sinful humanity to encounter the Ultimate Reality at the end of their first life. After hearing the story many times, the Hindu boy decided he would also become a Christian.

Not long after Pi became a Christian, he wandered into a Mosque. He was quite nervous because he had never heard anything good about Muslims. As he stood at the doorway, a man greeted him and invited Pi to enter the building. He was a Sufi, a Muslim mystic. The Cleric asked Pi if he would like to pray.  Intrigued, Pi asked to whom they would be praying. The Cleric responded, “We will pray to Allah. Let us pray that God will love us. We believe if you take two steps toward God, God will run toward you.” For the next few weeks Pi visited the Mosque regularly, learning how to pray regularly each day. Eventually, the prayers of the Sufi became Pi’s prayers and the Hindu boy with a personal relationship with Jesus became a Muslim.

Each week Pi would pray in the Mosque, worship in the church and observe all the wonders of life he embraced as a Hindu.  All was going well until the Priest, the Cleric, and a Hindu Guru discovered the boy was practicing all three religions. In a darkly comical scene the three leaders of their faith communities argued over the religious affiliation of Pi. Finally they decided to take the child to the parents and have the non-religious father choose his son’s spiritual pedigree. Speaking for the group the Guru began, “Mr. Patel, Pi’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it is so good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that. But he can’t be Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. He must choose one religion and claim it as his own.”

Pi’s mother looked her son and asked, “How do you feel about the question?” 

Pi thought and then responded, “Gandhi said all religions are true.  I just want to love God.”    (stop)

The complexities of one’s religious faith never used to be a problem. I was born in Georgia in 1950. No one in my hometown ever gave religious diversity a second thought. We were all born Christian and we never doubted we would all die Christian. But when I was nine my family moved to Hampton, Virginia. Our favorite restaurant was a Jewish Delicatessen called Danny’s.  


Danny Green made the best pastrami and swiss on rye I had ever tasted. That was my first encounter with Judaism. Looking back, if I had been born on the lower east side of New York City instead of a cotton mill village in Georgia, there is a good chance I would have read Harry Golden’s newspaper, gone to the YMCA anytime Elie Wiesel lectured, and feasted on kosher beef and bagels. I would have probably worshipped in a synagogue on Saturday.

If my birth had taken place outside Tehran, the chances of my becoming a Presbyterian minister would have been slim and none. Hopefully I would have had the good fortune of living in a town with a Sufi priest, but I probably would have been raised a Shiite. Likewise the chance of a being Christian would be quite improbable if my home was along the Ganges River.  While I have always been a great admirer of Gandhi, my love for pastrami might have made being a Hindu quite difficult.

Our understanding of the world since 1950 has radically changed. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.    Hindu and Buddhist temples are commonplace in any major US city. Christianity is making rapid inroads in East Africa and places along the Pacific Rim.  Everyone is competing for the soul of Pi, and often our methods are somewhat questionable. We hear of radical Islamists recruiting youth to become part of their jihads. We have witnessed Christian churches using stories of hell and damnation to frighten children into committing their   lives to Jesus. Is it any wonder that while more folks are claiming to believe in God, the same folks are separating themselves from religious organizations? What happened to the concept of love being the foundation of any Godly movement?

The writer of First John set out to write a letter explaining the rationale of the Christian Church. His message seems almost simplistic. He begins with an affirmation, “We love because God first loved us”. He follows with a proclamation, “Because Christ laid down his life for you, we ought to lay down our lives for each other.” Let’s make something very clear. The writer of this letter did not live in a time without difficulties. The letter was written in a dangerous era in which being a Christian was often punishable by death. Today, we have no idea what those folks suffered in order that we might freely worship. We cannot comprehend the hardships they endured. But what might be even harder to appreciate is that the foundation of our faith began with the command to love your enemy.

What happen to that ideal? I suppose it could be argued that the love motif was never really part of actual practice of our major religions. The concept of loving one’s neighbors and enemies is admirable but generally understood as impossible. Perhaps that is why we live in an age in which affirmations of faith have become so tied to the complexities of geo-political struggles. It is hard to separate one’s allegiance to God from one’s loyalty to a particular tribe. Likewise, it becomes almost impossible to love someone who might be different from you.

A week or so ago a number of us had the honor of hearing Josh Ralston, professor of Theology at Union Seminary, speak on relationships between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He told the story of a Christian Church that had held uninterrupted Sabbath services for nearly 1600 years in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. Last month the church was closed by ISIS. The Muslim clerics in the city protested the closing and declared the ISIS persecution of Christians to be an act of heresy. Ralston told us story after story of communities of differing faiths that had lived peacefully together for centuries now being torn apart by, “missionary minded zealots from each faith determined to force the international community into a Holy War.”

 How do we stop this from happening? I believe we must cling to the writer of John’s bizarre idea that we convert folks through love. He consistently said that if we love God, we obey God’s commandments. Those commandments are based on our relationships toward those folks around us. I have studied other faiths including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhist, as well as the faith systems of the Aztec, Maya, Incas and our own Native Americans. If we ignore the radical fringes of each of these religions, what is consistently revealed and revered in each is the concept that loving God is best demonstrated through loving one’s neighbor. If harmony and trust is discovered through embracing God’s love, aren’t we compelled to reject any religious thought that justifies violence as a God given mandate?

Does this mean, like Pi, I should become Hindu, Moslem, and Christian to fully comprehend God? I don’t believe that is necessary. The wonder and beauty of each religion is expressed most fully in the radically different ways God has been revealed. I give thanks each day that God’s love has been made known to me through the incarnation and revelation of Jesus Christ. Each day I rejoice in my understanding that through the grace of God my sin has been both exposed and forgiven. But as I have grown older, and hopefully a little more tolerant, I am no longer blind to the joyous truth that God chooses to be revealed in multifaceted ways to folks whose life experiences are dissimilar to mine.  

Too often our conversations with or about Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists always begins with our differences. What if we began with what each of us holds to be absolutely and completely true? Every religion confirms God loves us and commands us to love each other.  Sometimes I think the great religions of this world are so busy trying to sell our uniqueness’s that each has forgotten this universally held truth.

 To some of you this must sound terribly naïve. To a few it might even verge on the heretical. Your concerns are understood and appreciated. Yet, it seems if we claim God, and if we claim that God is love, we cannot allow headlines and fringe religious elements to keep us from striving toward God’s peaceable kingdom. Violence breeds discontent. Violence demands a violent response. Members of ISIS, as well as supporters of groups such as the American Freedom Defense Initiative would like nothing better than turning the Middle East into Armageddon. Both groups take obscure writings from their otherwise Holy Books and turn them into godly crusades. Innocent people die and survivors become outraged, reacting in a way that will only breed violence.

And the God of all of creation weeps.

Let us return to Yann Martell’s parable. The majority of the book is about a boy and a tiger surviving on a raft in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean. Just the idea of a tiger and a boy occupying equal space in the middle of the ocean is a stretch for the average imagination, but we read on, wondering how this pilgrimage will end. Pi regularly prays to God in many of God’s humanly perceived manifestations. Midway through the ordeal a revelation is discovered. Allow me to share from the book.

I practiced religious rituals that I adapted to the circumstances: a mass without a priest, darshans without a monk, prayers to Allah not knowing where Mecca was. They brought me comfort, that is certain, but it was so hard. Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love, but sometimes it is so hard to love. Sometimes my heart was sinking fast with anger, desolation, and weariness. I was afraid I would sink to the bottom of the Pacific.

When this would happen I would touch my turban and scream, “This is God’s hat.” I would touch my shirt, “This is God’s shirt.” I would look at the tiger, “This is God’s cat.” “This is God’s ark; this is God’s ocean; this is God’s sky.”

But God’s hat was always unraveling. God’s shirt was falling apart. God’s cat was a constant danger. God’s ark felt like a jail.

Despair is a heavy blackness that lets no light in or out. It is hell beyond expression.  But eventually the blackness would stir and go away and all that remained was God, a shining point in the light of my heart. And I would go on loving.

From the beginning of time, there has been God or Yahweh or Allah or Vishnu, a shining point in the midst of times of darkness and despair. This God, this Voice, this Word, calls God’s people to have patience. This Voice calls God’s people to a radical trust in the One beyond us and the ones among us. This Word calls God’s people to love our friends and enemies. This God, this Voice, this Word, calls God’s people to remember the darkness will always pass away.                              Amen

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Abide in Me

John 15:1-8; I John 4:7-12


        The primary rule of any polite conversation is, “Don’t talk about race, politics, sex or religion.” Many folks think the same applies to sermons and they are probably right. Anything said either goes too far in the eyes of most or not far enough in the eyes of a few. While most walk away unsatisfied, sometimes, during what seems to be misguided ramblings, a heart might be stirred or a soul inspired.

        Nelle Lee grew up under the shadow of a powerful father who ran the town of Monroeville, Alabama. He was a lawyer, owned the local newspaper, and had tremendous authority over much of the town. While Mr. Lee was considered a progressive on social issues, he helped have a minister removed from his church when, in Mr. Lee’s words, a sermon strayed from the Bible and into the area of integration.   But then it was the late 1940’s. Overall Mr. Lee was trusted by the citizens of Monroeville to wield his power in a manner that was beneficial to the average resident.

        Nelle and her father did not see eye to eye. He used his influence to enroll her in the University of Alabama School of Law. After a semester, she used her independence to leave, move to New York City, and become a writer. The father disowned the daughter and the daughter became known by her middle name. Harper Lee responded to the perils of mixing power and fear by writing To Kill a Mockingbird.

        I do not expect anyone to flee from the sanctuary after this morning’s service and write the next great American novel. But the more I read this morning’s text and the more I listened to our local and national news, the more I thought perhaps we might have a conversation on how this morning’s scripture responds to the issues of sex and race.

        Both of our scriptures radically challenge the modern notion of individual sovereignty. We are quick to embrace an attitude of “Don’t Tread on Me”, while forgetting or perhaps never knowing the roots of that commonly used phrase. The creation of that idiom was intended for the unification of a community over the very real threat of tyranny. I fear today our desire for individual sovereignty excludes what might be best for the communities in which we reside.

        I am going to rant for a moment so this might be a good time to turn off your hearing aids or go to that “happy place” easily visited while listening to a sermon.

        Sexuality is a gift from God. Rape has nothing to do with sexuality. Rape is a brutal act instigated by one or more people exerting their POWER over another person. Regardless how badly Rolling Stone Magazine botched their reporting, none of us are naïve enough to believe rape is not an epidemic on our college campuses. If I had an 18 year old daughter, I would fear for her safety.

        Diversity is a gift from God. Racism has little to do with prejudice and everything to do with one or more people brutally instigating POWER over others. Many of us sat in disbelief, in frustration, and in anger, as we watched a portion of the city of Baltimore explode. Where does one begin in understanding this and the other tragedies we have witnessed in the streets of our major cities? Too often the conversation never moves beyond folks pointing a finger at someone else. Last week was a tragic example of this.

It is irresponsible to assume our inner cities are primarily drug infested breeding grounds for gang violence, where children have no fathers and mothers become pregnant in order to receive welfare checks. Far too many people are stereotyped by this inaccurate categorization.

It is equally irresponsible to suggest that our police departments are filled with violent men and women who have little or no respect for the communities they are sworn to protect. This inaccuracy demonizes honorable professionals who constantly place their lives in harm’s way.

This deceit is created by folks who never experienced the inner city and by folks who have never taken the time to witness the dedication and the integrity which abounds in our Law Enforcement agencies. These gross inaccuracies, fostered by loud voices and irresponsible journalism trigger heated debates which will never lead to anything other than continued confrontations weighted and ignited by decades of hate and distrust. In the meantime, we push aside far more important issues such as the gentrification of our major cities creating dangerous ghettos of poverty and racial divide. We fail to address the sustainment of a welfare system which has severely divided the powerful from the powerless. We fail to recognize the hazard of city planners driven by economics or government officials chosen by special interest groups. We fail to offer an alternative to an education system in our inner cities which has failed both the educators and those desiring to be educated.

The ugly truth we fail to confront is that systemic racism still lives in this country and is successfully dismantling the hopes and dreams of our next generation.

Those are broadly scripted accusations which by their very nature are inflammatory and simplistic. Furthermore many of us came to this beautiful and serene valley to escape those problems. But the truth is, while we live in Nelson County we also live in Baltimore, and East St. Louis, and North Charleston, and New York City and Portsmouth.  We are brothers and sisters with each resident and each public servant in those communities, not just because we are Americans, but because we are all children of God. Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches. The branch cannot bear fruit unless you abide in me.” I would humbly suggest in the last few months we aren’t bearing much fruit. Perhaps too many folks have forgotten that the “Word of the Lord” applies on Monday through Saturday as well as Sunday and the primary word of God is, “Love everyone because love is from God.”

These are dangerous words because they’re spoken far too casually.  What have I ever done to show the community of Baltimore that I love them. Likewise, how far would I get if I volunteered to teach restraint to Baltimore’s finest. I cannot begin to imagine the stress the police face. So, before I start flashing peace signs and singing Kum Bah Ya, the first thing I must do is to take a hard look at myself and examine what it means to love God, and what love means to the one we dare call God. The answer we receive is neither easy nor simplistic.

God’s love is sacrificial.

God’s love shows little interest in power or prosperity.

God’s love is inclusive.

Here is the hardest one. God’s love is transformational or in other words, God seeks out the worst in us in order that something new might emerge.

God’s love and God’s grace are radical concepts which call me to reexamine and redefine my own life. As a white male, the first thing I must do, should I have any interest in the problems of Baltimore, is to acknowledge that my kin have had an obsession with racism every since my ancestors landed on these shores. Racism has always been the primary obstacle standing in the way of my family empowering others. Being from the Deep South, we have allowed ourselves to believe the poster child of racism is an uneducated red neck sitting on the back of his pickup with a bumper adorned with the words, “The South will rise again.” That image has conveniently camouflaged the continued mindset which has caused us to be more concerned with burning property than human life. We have created distorted opinions about particular cultures which are based on half truths, lies and myths. Furthermore, any discussion about race has failed to raise this one critical question, “Who has the power?” Ironically the one racial group that traditionally controls the power wants to pretend racism doesn’t exist.

I cannot change how a black man in Baltimore feels toward me. His perception or perhaps his misperception is built on his narrative.

I cannot place myself in the shoes of a policemen operating from his or her  narrative in which fear and anger often override civil behavior.

But I can examine who is sovereign in my life. I can challenge myself to be open to sacrificing myself rather than sacrificing the dignity of others. I can try to be motivated by more than power and prosperity. I can expand my community to be more inclusive by listening to the stories and narratives of folks different than me. And if I can accomplish the first three, then I can begin the difficult task of becoming an agent of transformation, seeking to enter into a relationship of trust with folks I have previously ignored.

God loves us by empowering us with the love of God. We exhibit that love by empowering others. As God abides in us, let us abide with those who God intentionally made to be radically and racially different than us. By hearing each other’s narrative, perhaps we might take the first giant step toward bringing about God’s peaceable kingdom.