Sunday, July 26, 2015

Do You Believe in Miracles?

2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-14


Arguably the greatest sports call of my lifetime was when Al Michael shouted “Do you believe in miracles?” This morning we look at two scriptures asking the same question. Our quick answer is, “Why of course we do!”  But then as we struggle with what we entertain as probable and what is not, little questions begin to surface, exposing small cracks of doubt in our faith system.

Do you believe in miracles? Thomas Jefferson claimed he did not. He believed everything was dependent on the planning and sacrifices of the human spirit. Jefferson had little time for leaving his destiny to the whims of God. If you have read a copy of the Jefferson Bible, you will note all the miracles have been eliminated.

Of course Jefferson was not a particularly religious guy, no matter what the religious right would have us believe. But William Barkley, the great Scottish Biblical commentator, was a man of great faith. Many of us grew up on his wonderful analysis of the New Testament. Other than the resurrection, Barkley struggled mightily with miracles.   They did not fit into his logically trained mind. I love looking back at his commentaries as Barkley contrived elaborate explanations for the miracle stories. Barkley was not lacking faith but his convictions were based on more than a belief in the unexplainable. He was particularly wary of irrational observations fueled by overactive imaginations.

My rational side tends to agree with Barkley and Jefferson. I celebrate God’s creation of the universe and I cherish the belief that God’s presence shadows my every step. I believe God expects us to be the creator of miracles. Yet if Herb Brooks were asked if the USA hockey win involved divine intervention, I am sure he would scowl and mutter, “We worked hard and believed in ourselves.” So how do skeptics come to cherish the presence of miracles? Perhaps we need the eyes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

        Earth’s crammed with heaven,

        And every common bush alive with God.

        And only he who sees takes off his shoes—

        While the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.


Some marvel at the wonder of miracles. Some witness the hand of God in the ordinary.

This morning our scriptures center on miracles. One you know very well. Not only is it recorded in the New Testament multiple times, it has to be the favorite story of any Vacation Bible School. A small boy with a couple fish and some crumbs of bread contributes his lunch to a holy cause and 5,000 folks are fed, with leftovers. Barkley has a field day with this illusion. He claims the miracle was not that Jesus fed 5,000 people but when the boy offered all he had, everyone else was willing to share. There was always plenty of food. The miracle was getting folks to open their picnic baskets and their hearts unconditionally. Does this take away from the power of God? No!!! If God can create the universe, filling an order of fish and chips should be child’s play. But it is hard work to get folks to share.

I just spent a few days with three children who are seven and under. Now you know any children claiming Deb and I as their grandparents have to be perfect. Even so, I discovered the most often used words within the Paukert household are “Mine” and “No”. The concept of sharing is discussed only when a younger child is playing with a toy an older child desires. It is a feeble attempt to engage in an ethical principal in which the strong tries to persuade the weak to willingly discard a valuable commodity for something of lesser value. Goodness and fairness are never part of the exchange. It is a blatantly selfish act based on guile and deception.

In most households this trait must be practiced until perfected because it has become the very bases of any economic system. If you have something I desire, I am willing to make an offer, but I do not want to lose out on the exchange. If I am the stronger trading partner, I can offer a plethora of worthless objects in order to obtain the item I desire. Think of the Dutch bargaining with Native Americans for Long Island. Think of Roger Maris being traded to the Yankees for Marv Thornberry. So I ask again, how hard is it to share? Let me up the ante. How hard is it to share when you may not receive anything in return? This is the faith demonstrated by the young boy who gave up his lunch when  Andrew said, “Will you share?”

The boy didn’t say, “What do I get?” He simply responded, “OK”. The boy was given an opportunity to help and he selflessly responded. Now what kind of world would we be living in if this were the norm and not the exception? I am not really sure, but I suspect we would never have to listen to Donald Trump again.

Could the human response to a need be a far greater miracle than a Godly response to prayer? That may be a dangerous question, but let me suggest miracles are performed all the time by those not busily gathering blackberries. Instead of gouging ourselves, perhaps we should be take off our shoes and thank God for the opportunities to silently and faithfully contribute.

Ah, but the cynic from within rises to challenge even my brilliant analysis.  What if the boy shared because he saw Jesus and knew he was in the presence of God? What if the boy shared because he was certain that Jesus had a trick or two up his sleeve? If this is the case, the boy did not share; he was buying into the real thing. If Jesus suddenly appeared in this sanctuary and said, “I have need of your American Express Card”, how would you respond? I pray none of us would say, “Jesus, what did you ever do for me?”

I hope our response would be to take off our shoes, bow our heads, and say “OH MY GOD” …… and actually mean it in a religious way.

Perhaps the best explanation for the boy’s action was he had Godly parents who made sure he read the Torah each night before going to bed. The boy knew turning scrapes into a meal was possible because it had been done before during the days of Elisha.

Large personalities dominate the Bible but many miracles were instigated by names we seldom remember. You know Abraham, Moses, Sampson, Gideon and David. With the crumbling of the Davidic kingdom emerged a group of outsiders and shamans that delivered God’s edicts to the descendents of Abraham. The greatest was Elijah. His cloak was picked up by the mystic Elisha. You may not know much about him. He arrived on the scene as Elijah was taken to heaven by a fiery chariot. Most of Elisha’s stories have a supernatural flavor. He pales in comparison to Elijah yet Elisha not only represented the mystery of God, Jesus duplicates many of his stories in the gospels.

Elisha lived in desperate times. Food was scarce making starvation a constant occurrence. In our text we read that Elisha appeared among a crowd of more than 100 famished people. We have all seen the videos of rescue workers trying to spread food among folks fighting to live. The food only gets to those strong enough to fight their way to the back of the truck. The weak are trampled and left for dead. Elisha was given a small sack of food by an unnamed bystander. The first miracle occurs when Elisha asked the mob to quietly sit, and they responded. Then Elisha fed everyone, with leftovers to boot.

Two universal truths are displayed by this story.  First, there is suffering and need in this world. Second, God’s blessings are more abundant than we realize. But a third truth is exposed in the telling of the story. Sometimes, we fail to notice the real miracle that has taken place.

  This story, just like Jesus feeding the 5,000, began when someone responded. An unknown man brought food for the poor. It certainly wasn’t enough to feed everyone. The man could have put it aside and saved it for himself. But he didn’t. This unknown man responded to a need, allowing his generosity to spark the blessing of God.

What is it that defines a church? The obvious answer is a church is a group of people who identify themselves through their belief in a higher power. But what is it that would cause someone outside that church to make the observation that its members are a holy people.

During vacation I read Thomas Cahill’s Desire of the Everlasting Hills. You might remember Cahill as the guy who claims the Irish saved civilization. That notwithstanding, his latest book describes the Roman/Greek world during and immediately after the life of Jesus. Cahill observes as both Judaism and the followers of Christ begin to settle in Greek and Roman provinces, folks noticed something vastly interesting about their new neighbors. They worshipped one God. They observed a holy day. They treated their wives with dignity. They placed great value on their code of ethics. They cared for the poor, the destitute, the widows and orphans and anyone of a lower economic class.

So I ask you again, what is it that defines a church? I hope we would include worshiping one God, observing a holy day, treating each family member with dignity and placing great value on our Commandments.   But what is it that catches the attention of those peering through our doors?


A small boy came to hear Jesus. When it was noon he opened his bag and prepared to eat the lunch prepared by his mother. A stranger said to him, “Will you share what you have?” Without hesitation the boy said, “Yes”.      

So what is the church? Maybe it is folks who always bring an extra bucket each time they pick blackberries because they believe every day God provides the opportunity to perform a miracle.                      Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Culture of Crooked Walls

Amos 7:7-10,14,15; Psalm 85:8-13

From a variety of perspectives, I would suggest many of us believe we are captured between our dreams and the reality of the world. Those of us who celebrated tie dyed tee shirts and bell bottom jeans as a fashion statement are not the only folks who envision what the world could become if others would come to their senses. Take the Dominion Pipe Line……please. I have only lived in Nelson County three years but I ask you, has there ever been a local issue that has simultaneously united blacks and whites, gays and straights, hippies and red necks, retirees and locals. Any day I expect to see a rainbow colored, Stars and Bars flag brandishing the slogan, “Don’t Tread on Nelson County”.

Unfortunately, a majority of Virginians, and all the stockholders of Duke Energy, view our consternation as confirmation that we have lost touch with reality. While countering with the time honored phrase, “The truth will set you free,” we secretly fear Flannery O’Conner was right when she wrote, “All that truth does is make us odd.”

No character in the entire Biblical narrative comes across odder than the prophet Amos.  The biblical scholar Abraham Heschel wrote, “A significant aspect of the office of prophet was to remind the king his sovereignty was limited and secondary to the justice of God.” Amos, a native of Judah, had no problem going north to the Temple at Bethel and pointing out King Jeroboam’s disregard of the God to Monarch relationship. As you might imagine the King’s cronies were not receptive to the prophet’s inflammatory remarks. Imagine me, the product of a cotton mill in Georgia, going to New York City and telling Madison Avenue God wanted the truth to be told in advertising. I am sure they would cart me off to Mount Sinai Hospital.

While no one in New York would give me the time of day, the priest let Amos talk. That was their first mistake. Much to their discomfort the sheep herder from Tekoa had plenty to say. Their second mistake was not listening. Amos declared God had set a plumb line on the people of Israel and the final results found them sorely lacking.

A few months ago Deb and I had some carpenters frame a portion of our basement. After watching them work for thirty minutes and then sleeping in a Holiday Day Express Hotel I feel qualified to elaborate on the absolute necessity of a plumb line. If the wall is not plumb, the wall is going to fall down. In other words, if the people of Israel were not righteous, the house of Jeroboam would collapse.

Ministers love preaching on Amos because we enjoy putting the plumb line on everyone else. But just for giggles, let’s investigate the reason Amos was so upset by the conditions he discovered in the kingdom of Israel.

In all fairness to the Jeroboam II, Israel reached the summit of its power and prosperity under this industrious king. Jeroboam sat on the throne forty years.   When Amos arrived the land was literally flowing with vineyards to pluck and grass to graze their livestock. The rich owned summer and winter homes. Life was good. So what was the problem?

According to Amos, there was no justice in the land. The poor were afflicted, exploited, even sold into slavery. The justice system was corrupt. Bribes rather integrity settled court cases. Amos accused the wealthy of not only abusing the Sabbath but wishing it would end quickly so that they could resume their cheating and exploitation. Was Amos over reacting? Was Amos unable to understand each clog in an economic system has to be in synch so that the institution functions perfectly? Could Amos be accused of mixing religion and politics? Shouldn’t a man of God be careful to remember the abstracts of religious thought are often in conflict with the hard realities of business? What do we do with agitators who question our economic success?

I again turn to Abraham Heschel. “A prophet is a man who feels fiercely God has thrust a burden upon his soul. A prophet is a man bowed by poverty and stunned by fierce greed.  So frightful is the agony of this man no human voice can convey its full terror.  God has lent to this silent agony a voice, heard by both the plundered poor and the profaned rich, proclaiming few are guilty but all are responsible. It is a lonely and miserable voice, a voice in deep sympathy with the divine pathos.”

Those are certainly the words we wanted to hear before heading out to the pavilion to gorge ourselves on fried chicken and potato salad. Reading any prophet, but particularly Amos, can give us indigestion. Please understand the words of a prophet like Amos are meant to be heard one octave too high. They are loud, shrill, and seldom sung in our key. They challenge our reality and are too often dismissed just for that reason. When the prophet speaks, usually we are not ready for the words offered. Let’s face facts. We don’t like to think about issues of injustice, poverty, racism or even war. During joys and concerns, when someone mentions issues in the Middle East, or even Middle America, some of us want to close our ears and repeat the mantra, “Not here, not now. Not here, not now.””

 Prophets send a shiver up our spine. No matter how necessary they might be, we don’t want to be the one they are addressing. Perhaps for this very reason, the Bible is a narrative of prophets and poets. The prophet identifies the sin, a poison we ignore until we are polluted by our own transgression. But pathos is not the only language of God. In captivity, we hear the poet sing of redemption, hope, and the transformational power of a grace filled God.

In the midst of captivity, the children of Jerusalem encountered one such poet. For years, from the mouth of Amos and Jeremiah, they had heard The Word of the Lord as a precursor to their eventual downfall. Then they hit rock bottom. Jerusalem was destroyed. The survivors were living in make-shift along the banks of the Euphrates River. They no longer needed to be chastised. They longed for an expression of hope . Listen to the sonnet they received.

When God speaks of grace,

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet.

When God speaks of grace,

Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

When God speaks of grace,

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,

And righteousness will look down from the sky.


Some might find that to be a strange language for our culture, and it probably is, unless you are someone who has witnessed the crumbling of your sturdy, dependable walls.

You don’t have to go to Babylon to experience exile. What happens when your life partner begins losing her mental capabilities?  What happens when you watch your grown adult son battle a life threatening addiction to “over the counter” drugs? What happens when the money set aside for retirement is severely challenged by inflation? What happens when dreams are overwhelmed by the world’s reality? What happens when Amos was right but you don’t need more words of guilt to get you through the challenges of the day? What you really desire is a poet.

I have been blessed to have spent some time with an old friend this week. Gary suggested I take a look at Anne Lamott’s latest blog. Lamott is an irreverent mix of passion, insight, and humor that springs from experiences I would wish on no one.  In Traveling Mercies she writes, “One day in 1985 I woke up so hung-over I felt pinned to my bed by centrifugal force. I decided to quit drinking. That is when I panicked. Thankfully a moment of clarity set in when I realized it wasn’t I drank so much but rather I drank too quickly.  So I went to the market to buy two beers. On returning home I realized the two beers might not be enough for the night. Luckily I had a Nike box full of prescriptions. I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.”

In Anne’s blog on July 7th she wrote, On this day 29 years ago I picked up the 200 pound phone and called the same sober alkie my brother had called 2 years before. He said to me, “I’ll be there at 11:30. Take a shower and try not to drink. The shower is optional.” I couldn’t image there was a way out of the sickness and deceit but what I discovered was that God can make a way out of no way. No matter how bad things might look, Grace bats last.

As long as injustice and poverty remain part of our economic landscape we need the voice of Amos. As long as wars and the rumor of wars dominate our political boardrooms we need Micah speaking of turning spears into plowshares. When the worship of our culture or our nation supersedes the adoration of God we need to reread Jeremiah.   The prophets hold our feet to a holier fire than those motivated by profit or fame or power.

But God does not leave us alone to face the ebb and flow that often appears to dominate us. Amidst the lost, amidst the exile, amidst the darkness, comes the poet to remind us it is God’s future and not our present circumstances that governs our lives.

Grace bats last.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet.

Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

The dreams of our God have a wonderful way of trumping the realities of this world.

Just ask Anne Lamott. Or ask yourself. I suspect somewhere along the way we each have a story of the amazing grace of the one we call Christ.

Become a poet.

Sing of righteousness and peace.

        Live faithfully toward the dreams of our God.





Sunday, July 5, 2015

Going Home

Mark 6:1-5


Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward Angel, not to be confused with Tom Wolfe, who wrote the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff, was engaged in a remorseful conversation with fellow writer Ella Winter concerning how the folks in Asheville North Carolina seemed to have taken his masterpiece a bit too personal.

Wolfe remarked, “They seem to believe I exposed all their inner most secrets.”

Winter replied, “Thomas, haven’t you learned; you can never go home.”

Four years ago I traveled back to Hampton Virginia to perform Deb’s mother’s funeral. Deb and I grew up in Hampton and attended the same church. Now I was returning, 60 years old, a grandfather, with over 30 years experience in the church. When the service was over folks I hardly recognized came up and said, “Andy, it was so strange seeing you in the pulpit. It seemed just yesterday you and John Reed were into some kind of mischief.” Going home is not always as easy as it might appear.

In our text this morning Jesus goes home. All throughout Judah, Jesus was known as a teacher, preacher and miracle worker. But in his hometown he was still the son of the old carpenter. Jesus stood up in the synagogue to teach and the folks could only visualize a little boy handing his dad a piece of wood. One of them even asked, “When did he get to be so smart? Is this some kind of trick? I remember your daddy. I am not so sure Joseph would be comfortable with the things you are preaching.”

It’s hard to go home, particularly if you are not the person folks think you are suppose to be. It was particularly hard on Jesus. He wanted to make his mother proud. Instead, Jesus was so disappointed by his neighbor’s unbelief he told the disciples it was time to move on. Nothing good was about to happen in Nazareth.

This is a difficult passage. Jesus grieves that the faithlessness of his neighbors was keeping them from witnessing the power of God. Is God limited by our unbelief? That is an excellent question for which I have no good answer. My heart says nothing can limit God, while my head leaves the question open for further debate. But today I am more interested in how Jesus responded to this difficult and disappointing return home.

In the days that followed, Jesus sent the disciples out two by two to begin to talk about God. He ordered them to take nothing with them except the gospel of God’s grace.

I am fascinated by this. How can one venture into the world without a story? Doesn’t our past both define who we are and who we are capable of becoming? Jesus sends them out practically empty handed. Think of the risk? Where was their résumé? What kind of credentials did they offer? They could not even hand out business cards? They had nothing and yet they had everything.

Most of us were not born in Nelson County. There are a few exceptions but most of us grew up someplace else, have family someplace else, went to school someplace else, and worked someplace else. I remember when the Search Committee and I began our conversations. I had a great résumé filled with three graduate degrees, plenty of experience at a variety of churches, wonderful references and even an ace up my sleeve……Mary Jane Winters and I were friends. But the committee was not interested in any of that. They didn’t want to know where I had been, they only wanted to know where I was going.

When I began to question committee members about their history, I discovered an interesting fact. While the committee was very comfortable with each other, they knew very little about the past roads each had traveled to arrive in Nellysford. The committee had folks from all over the United States. They were educators, social workers, chemists, and doctors. Combined, they had more advanced degrees than James Brown had hit records. But they only knew each other as members of this church. They had all come from someplace they once called home but now their new home was this community of faith. Their main selling point was inviting me to join them in this piece of heaven known as Rockfish Presbyterian.

Jesus did what most of you have done. He walked away from his past and into God’s future. My whole life I have heard folks talking about the good old days. Amazingly, I hear very little of that kind of talk around here. People don’t care where you have been. They want to know where you are going. Jesus said to the disciples, “Don’t forget your past, but realize you have grown beyond it. When you go into the neighboring villages, don’t talk about who you were, talk about who you are becoming. Then invite them to join you in the journey.” That is evangelism in its purest sense.

The evangelistic formula used by Jesus is the same formula your search committee used on me. People aren’t all that interested in where you have been; they want to know where you are going. Once you get someone’s attention, they want to know if they can tag along. It is quite simple. Evangelism is more about coming home than going home.

What attracted you to this church? Was it the brilliant sermons? Was it the extraordinary music? Was it the friendliness? Was it our vast opportunities for ministry? Was it our openness to new ideas while holding on to that which has always been sacred? I am sure each of those played some small part in your being here. But I bet there is a bigger reason you came and stayed.

Somewhere along the way someone, a minister, a session, a congregation or a combination of all three woke up and came to the brilliant conclusion you can build a building, you can occupy a building, you can do programming in a building, you can even call that building home, but you can’t call it a church until you do two things:

Love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind.

Love your neighbor as you love yourself.       (stop)

Jesus went home, excited to share the Word of the Lord with his old friends and neighbors. He said to them, “Friends, hear the good news. Repent and celebrate who you can become through the grace of God.”

They looked cross-eyed at him and said, “Son, we are pretty much happy with the way we are. You need to remember where you came from and get with the program.”

Jesus gathered the disciples around him and said, “My Father has always been about the business of doing a new thing. We can no longer be satisfied with who we are, we must celebrate what God would have us become. You go out into the villages and embrace everyone with the love of God. Then step back and be amazed by what happens.”

For centuries churches have tinkered with how to worship, when to worship, and what to worship. For decades churches have discussed formulas for growth, evangelism, mission and ministry. For years churches have bickered over traditions, theology, and biblical interpretation. Too frequently every discussion emerges from a desperate need to protect a time honored investment that traditionally does things the way they have always been done. The results are predictable. Our churches are dying. Don’t get me wrong, God is alive and well. But churches would rather “go home” to the safety of what they have always been, then “come home” to the excitement and dangers of loving God and God’s children without restrictions, without reservations, and without fear of experiencing something new.

Jesus is always daring us to look beyond our history and our comfort zones. Jesus is always reminding us there are a lot of folks just outside our doors who would welcome an invitation to participate in a journey where the only strategy is loving God and loving all of God’s children.

 Do you want to “go home” or “come home”?  That is the question Jesus is asking. Aren’t they the same thing? Not to the One who proclaims, “Come unto me, ALL who are weary, or confused or lost or alone. I will give you rest.”      Amen.