Sunday, December 18, 2016

Violating Convention

Matthew 1:18-25


        We all love a good Christmas story and I suspect many of you have a personal Christmas experience you will never forget. My first paying gig in a church was not as a preacher but rather as a Director of Christian Educator. The church was Second Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina. The members took being Charlestonians very seriously. For more years than anyone could remember each Christmas Eve the Christmas story was depicted in a unique pageant. The distinctiveness was not in the story, for the script was the usual homogenization of Luke and Matthew where kings and shepherds mingle together with the livestock. What made the event unique was every part, from sheep to king, was played by an adult.  The costumes worn were far more expensive than any suit I had ever owned. Most of the cast had been playing their role for at least twenty years. It seemed the only way to retire from the play was to die. Unfortunately, the person playing the Innkeeper had passed away that summer. My job as Director of Christian Education was to recruit the new Innkeeper.  Acting ability hardly mattered but it was imperative that the new thespian could either fit into the costume or knew a good tailor.  After much searching I finally found my Innkeeper. Before signing up for this lifelong commitment   he asked if there was a script.

        “Well of course there is a script.”

        “Are you sure?”

        Well to tell the truth I wasn’t sure. I assumed any play had to have a script. On the other hand, since the same folks had played the same role for so many years the official script had probably found its way to the bottom of some discarded filing cabinet. So I turned to my new recruit and said, “Wing it.”

        He looked down his long but properly proportioned South of Broad nose and replied, “Sir, we don’t wing it in Charleston.”

        “You know what I mean. Ad-lib. Joseph will ask for a room and you say, ‘The Inn is full.’ He will say, ‘My wife is pregnant. Do you have anyplace we can I go’. You will reply, ‘I have a stable behind the Inn’.”

        He nodded, the contract was signed, in triplicate, and I told him rehearsal would be Christmas Eve morning at 11:00.

        Christmas Eve morning was a glorious day, in fact too glorious. At 7:30 I received a phone call from a cast member. The entire cast was headed to the golf course.

“Even Mary,” was all I could think to ask.  

“Are you kidding? Especially Mary. It was her idea. She has a 6 handicap and gets to play from the reds. She takes our money every year.”

“But what about the play?”

“Don’t worry. We haven’t rehearsed in years.”

Christmas Eve morning I went to the church to make sure all the prompts were in place for the production. At 11:00 I turned and spotted my newly recruited Innkeeper coming through the door. He sheepishly looked around and asked, “Am I early?”

I explained how I was not aware that rehearsal was solely dependent on the weather. He seemed to understand. I told him I was sorry no one contacted him but he reminded me in Charleston you have to be part of something for at least ten years before you are considered a member. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.

Switching the subject I asked, “You want to run through your lines.”

“Nah, I’m good. The wife and I have been working on them.” I found that pretty remarkable since I still had not discovered a script. But if he was OK, so was I.

“Great, I’ll see you this evening.”

The place was packed. Folks I had never seen occupied seats in pews that had been bought by family members at least a century ago. There were even folks in the balcony. We began with the children’s choir. Forty kids, all dressed in perfectly pressed robes, thrilled us with their versions of Christmas classics. After Dr. Randle delivered the Christmas Eve Prayer, the adult choir performed selections from Handle’s Messiah. Then it was time for The Play. It was pretty obvious everyone watching knew each line by heart. I could have asked anyone to have played the Innkeeper.

In the third scene Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle toward the makeshift city of Bethlehem. As they approached the Inn, my star pupil made his appearance. There was an anxious rustle through the sanctuary as folks realized who had been given the honor of replacing their dearly departed friend. Joseph was the first to speak. “Friend, we are looking for a room.”

On cue, the Innkeeper replied. “We have no room. The entire town is filled with folks here to pay their taxes.”

Joseph responded, “You must find me a room. My wife Mary is with child.”

Somewhat baffled the Innkeeper asked, “Excuse me, she’s what?”

A buzz ran through the congregation.  Everyone in the city of Charleston not only knew the proper line but also realized knew for the first time in their lifetime the sacred words were about to be altered. I scrunched down in my pew fearful of what might happen next.

Joseph, realizing they were off script tried to recover with a most logical response, “She’s pregnant.”

The Innkeeper replied, “Well it’s not my fault.”

The revered play ended its miraculous run when Joseph, unable to contain himself, spoke these extraordinary words, “Well, it’s not my fault either.”


        As Christmas has been transformed from mystery into doctrine Joseph has become a forgotten character. Mary gets all the accolades. Is any saint more revered than the mother of Jesus? Mary has become so famous even the Beetles sang about her. But Joseph has no song. Joseph barely has a spot in the story. Perhaps we should occasionally  skip beyond the romanticism of Luke and read the account recorded by Matthew.

        Matthew is seldom anyone’s favorite gospel. Luke has the best parables. John is the most polished. Mark is short and to the point. Matthew reads like a blueprint on how to build the kingdom of God here on earth, which is exactly what Matthew had in mind. Time after time in the book of Matthew Jesus says, “Put conventional wisdom aside, forget what you were taught as a child, and imagine something your parents could never quite visualize.”

        It began with Joseph. Imagine becoming engaged to the girl of your dreams and discovering she is pregnant. You know you are not the father. You know you should walk away. You know keeping her will destroy your reputation yet you cannot leave because you know the child is more important than anything in the whole world. Joseph should have left. Mary’s mess was not his fault. And yet he stayed. That’s what people building the kingdom of God do.

        This year Kemp, Barbara, Anne, Ralph, Sarah, Frankie and Iantha died. Each of these folks was serving or had served as an elder. Each played a huge role in the life of our congregation. It wasn’t our fault they died. Yet I have quietly watched as many of you have taken on the critical roles that our dearly beloved use to perform.   

        This year we discovered our old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be. Our Fellowship Hall and many of the rooms downstairs were beginning to show wear. The floor needed repaired, the heating/air system was nearly crippled, the roof was beginning to leak and that was just the beginning of the list. It wasn’t our fault. Jim Wright and his crew were constantly performing miracles with duct tape, bailing wire, and a whole lot of prayer. Then you, playing Joseph, stepped up in order that we might find new ways to be the light in our valley.

        That’s what the people of God do. We don’t offer excuses. We don’t worry with blame. We just step forward and do what is necessary to continue our holy covenant with each other and with God. We play Joseph, that solitary figure so often regulated to the back of the stable. We play Joseph, watching over the child, watching over the church. We play Joseph, always stepping forward at the most unusual moment to declare, “He shall be called Emmanuel.”

        While Mary will always be seen as the godliest character in the Christmas pageant, perhaps Joseph is the most God-like. From the back of the stable, God observes the tragedy and mayhem that is always part of the human adventure and must think, “It’s not my fault.” Thankfully what God thinks has never postponed what God does.

That is why the most important part of any Christmas celebration is declaring, “Emmanuel, God with us.”    Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Psalm 146:5-10; Isaiah 35:1-10


George Frederic Handel, born German but an English citizen was primarily known as a composer of Italian influenced operas. By the late 1730’s, with his star waning,   Handel took residence in Ireland where he was encouraged by Charles Jennens to consider Jesus as the inspiration for a new piece of music. Armed with a text written by Jennens, Handel composed his most famous work. Ironically Jennens was not pleased with Handel’s music, feeling it did not completely capture the magnificence of God’s most holy son.  Nonetheless, I suspect sometime during this Christmas holiday you will encounter part of Handel’s masterwork. For what is Christmas without at least one rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus?

Nearly 50 years later, an obscure Canadian poet sat down to grapple with the concept of Messiah in a way which would have been most unbecoming for Mr. Jennens. While the brilliant chorus by Handel reaches glorious heights, Leonard Cohen grasps the brokenness that must necessitate both the arrival and agony of any savior.  I fear in little more than a generation the name Leonard Cohen will be forgotten. Our grandchildren will once again join make-shift choirs on Christmas Eve trying to replicate Handel’s vision. So before Cohen is forgotten, let’s honor him for an amazing exegete of the concept of Messiah.

For those unfamiliar with Cohen’s song it begins,

I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played, it pleased the Lord,

But you don’t really care for music do you?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,

The minor fall the major lift,

The baffled king composing hallelujah.

Listen as Marianne sings the first verse and the chorus.

While Handel celebrates the omnipotence of Jesus the Messiah, Cohen is quick to expose the frailty of those who would claim the messianic cape. Certainly the first super hero of the Old Testament would be Sampson. This man-child was a one man wrecking crew against his tribe’s nemesis the Philistines, until he met Delilah. Cohen writes, She cut your hair and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

Even the poet/king David could not escape the temptation that comes from absolute power. Cohen recreates the scene with Bathsheba,

Your faith was strong but you needed proof,

You saw her bathing on the roof,

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.


David was the image of any messiah to be and yet he failed to survive the twist and turns that the world places before us. The frailty of David and Sampson is critical to their messianic configuration. We are all flawed people. If our messiahs are beyond temptation and sin then perhaps they are only gods posing as humans. Cohen sings,

It doesn’t matter which you heard,

The holy or the broken Hallelujah,

I did my best, I told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.

And even though it all went wrong,

I stand before the Lord of song,

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

Sometimes, no let me change that, most times when I want to understand the Christmas Story I need to submerge myself in the Psalms and Isaiah and poets like Leonard Cohen. David writes, Come Messiah. Set the prisoner free. Open the eyes of the blind. Lift up oppressed. Watch over the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Bring us joy.

Notice that Isaiah speaks the some language, Come Messiah. Strengthen the weak. Make our feeble knees firm.   Make our fearful hearts strong. Open the eyes of the blind. Unstop the ears of the deaf. Allow the lame to leap like a deer. Come Messiah. Teach us a song of joy.

David, Isaiah, and Leonard Cohen candidly speak to the brokenness of this world. We would like to think no one lives in poverty. We would like to believe are no homeless, no tyrants, no children without hope. But we know better. To believe this is to deny the sights and sounds that constantly bombard or eyes, our ears and our hearts. And so we sing, “Come Messiah”, ignorantly believing that the coming of the Lord will alleviate all pain and suffering. The messiah has come yet the children of Yemen still have nothing to eat.

When Jesus was born, the world was a dark place. When Jesus was a child he witnessed the hunger of an enslaved people. When Jesus was in his formative years he read the poems of David and Isaiah. When Jesus became a man he was determined not to fall prey to the entrapments of the messiahs before him. Surely God had designs on what Jesus could become. But the temptation to be less than human was very real. It was a man, not a God that walked in our midst. Only at the end could Jesus utter his broken, yet holy Hallelujah.

When I sing Handel’s Messiah, I sing of a glorious promise of the reign of God. But when I listen to Leonard Cohen, I am drawn to that lonely Galilean who dared to believe the only way to begin to change the world was through the hearts of twelve very ordinary people. He offered some very simple words. “If someone is without a coat, give them one of yours.” “Unless you are without sin, be careful when you condemn the rest of the world.” “Visit folks in jail, feed folks who are hungry, love one another, at least as much as you love yourself.” Then Jesus went about living the words he preached.   Hallelujah!

I think Jesus the man was telling anyone with ears to hear to stop looking for the messiah and become a messiah-like. Jesus was not suggesting we become a god, but he was confirming even as flawed as we may be, we have been blessed with the ability and the gifts to reach out to others. Perhaps it begins with helping a family down the road. Perhaps you might find that one hour a week to read to a child. Perhaps you might write to someone in prison or visit someone in a nursing home. Maybe you could become even more messianic by finding out how to keep our water and air clean. Maybe you might try discovering why you should even care about the people of Yemen. There are so many potholes in this world that need to be filled. Jesus gave us a pep talk and a shovel, but it is up to us to do the work.

Here is a news flash. Christmas is not about salvation. We have another holiday in April to celebrate God’s grace. Christmas is about God seeing the brokenness of this world and sending one of us to make a difference. In our attempts to follow that perfect example, we sometimes get in our own way. But if imperfection didn’t stop David or Sampson from getting up and trying again, it shouldn’t stop us. Remember,

For even though it all went wrong,

They stood before the Lord of song,

With nothing on their tongue,

But Hallelujah.

(Let’s listen as Marianne sings the whole song)




Sunday, December 4, 2016


Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-3
        In 1968 the career of Elvis Presley had pretty much left the building.  Hoping for a miracle a TV special was planned and Mac Davis was given a day to come up with a new song. Davis penned the words, “Memories, pressed against the pages of my mind, Memories, sweetened through the ages just like wine.” I have often wondered if Mac Davis had Advent in mind when he penned those lyrics. This is a time of the year when memories jump to the forefront of our minds. During the holidays, as families gather, we do more than eat.  Dishes are set to the side, chairs are pushed back and we tell stories.  None of the stories are new, few of the stories are accurate, but all of the stories form an important component of our holiday season.  Last month I spoke with Roger Elliott and asked if he would resurrect his telling of the Joseph story. This was more than just me trying to make my work load easier or an excuse to have someone else read my poetry. I remember three years ago when Roger became Joseph. Many of us were given a different and perhaps more human understanding of the Christmas story. Through the telling of a story our emotions got turned all the way up as memories were pressed against the pages of our mind.
        That is why it is so essential that the season of Advent be placed just before Christmas.  As much as we would rather drink in the sweet memories of yesterday, Advent pushes us toward another form of dreaming, where tomorrow’s possibilities are as vibrant as yesterday’s memories.  Advent reminds us that God was only getting started when the babe was born.  A new model for humanity was given; a different lamb was offered; a savior was lifted up in a way never imagined. Advent revives memories, cultivates imaginations and produces hope.
        John the Baptist had a very vivid memory of the past.  He remembered a time when his family would sit around the table and reminisce of a day when God created light out of darkness, life out of chaos, a God had the audacity to call it good.  They would tell stories of the time God split the waters of the Red Sea allowing folks to walk to freedom, a time when God leveled the mountains and lifted up the valley creating a path to Zion, a time when God promised one day God would do a new thing by creating a new heaven and a new earth.  John took those memories and forged them into a dream  declaring for everyone who could hear that the God who creates, the God who rescues, the God who saves, was about to enter their lives once more.
        John spoke to a people filled with memories but void of vision.  John said to them, “If God did all those things we remember, imagine what God will do next.”  Taking the very words spoken to a people in exile, John preached, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make the pathway straight. God is about to do a new thing.” 
        David Bartlett claims, “Nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion.  Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude and expectation.”
        When John the Baptist looked back on what God had done, he understood the possibility of what God was capable of doing.   Advent helps us see beyond a babe and recognize a man who would not be limited by conventional thought. The very idea of Jesus should excite us enough to ask, “What else is God in the process of doing?”
        This is where our children and grandchildren can help us in our understanding of Christmas. They are getting real serious about checking their Christmas wish list.  They have learned if you don’t ask you rarely receive.  Once they complete the list, they drop casual hints, hoping someone is listening. 
What casual hints are we dropping in God’s direction?  If we are silent, does it mean we doubt God is capable of doing something new?         The truth is a lot of folks inside and outside the church have given up on the church as an agent of transformation.  I read a disturbing article that said more and more of our young folks are moving away from churches because churches seem to be stuck in neutral, going no where fast.  We are existing on memories and our youth are looking for signs of new life.  They believe in God.  They yearn to live spiritual lives.  But the church seems happy only celebrating who they were.
        As a kid I used to make my spending money selling firewood.  My dad and I would go to places designated for new houses, pick out the straightest oak tree we could find, drop it to the ground, strip the tree and cut it into lengths to be split for fire wood.  All we left behind was a stump, a memory of what had been. 
        Our Isaiah passage is about a stump called Judah.  Once, under the reign of David, Judah had been a powerful kingdom.  But by the time of Isaiah there was little left but memories.   The amazing thing about this passage is where the people of Judah saw something dead and decaying, Isaiah witnessed a sprig, a small branch growing from that old stump.  It gave Isaiah hope.  Isaiah no longer wanted to hear about what had been.  He decided to hope in what could be. 
The church should be about the task of sending a powerful signal to anyone, young and old who might wonder if there is still life left in this old stump.  The realm of God shines through the witness, hopes, and dreams of a people who still believe God can convert us to a higher vision.   The challenge is not to be stuck in the traditions of the past but to be open to a new realm of Godly possibilities.
This Sunday we light the Candle of Peace. For those who like to reminisce this might bring recollections of a kinder, gentler time when we nestled in the arms of one who made us feel warm and safe. It becomes a beautiful dream limited to a specific moment and probably a very limited space. God wants us to expand both our vision and expectations. God proclaims to light the Candle of Peace is to dare to imagine life in a relationship we assumed impossible. Perhaps it is a soiled relationship with someone we once admired. Perhaps it is relationship which never had a chance because conventional wisdom has warned us against imagining such a friendship.
There is a new commercial on TV where an old Episcopal priest and an older Muslim Imam engage in a discussion about how kneeling is taking a toll on their knees. In a scene right out of O. Henry they send each other a gift for the holidays, and ironically it is the same set of knee pads. Cute commercial, until especially when I was told the actors were actually a priest and Imam who been friends for the last decade. This commercial reminds us of something far more important than the exchange of gifts. I can’t save the children of Aleppo if I am not willing to have a relationship with a stranger. I can’t change foreign policy if I am not willing to learn a stranger’s name. Lighting the Candle of Peace dares us to make new memories. Lighting the Candle of Peace entreats us to hear different stories. Lighting the Candle of Peace challenges us to not only sing God’s song justice and reconciliation but listen to the songs of others. We might be surprised to discover they are singing the same words with a different tune.
This Advent let’s not be satisfied to just revel in old memories. Let’s be about the task of creating new ones. That is what Advent is all about because that is what God is all about.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What Time Is It?

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14


        I suspect everyone here knows what time it is. Two days ago was Black Friday. While my wife and daughter moaned about having to go to Short Pump to face the crowds, Deb and Martina fooled no one. They had been planning this shopping excursion for at least 364 days. Someone told me tomorrow is Cyber-Monday. I guess that is Black Friday with a mouse. Any kid can tell you there are 28 shopping days till Christmas. They can also tell you how those days are to be spent, with the operative word being “spent.” First thing I do every morning is to look at my daily calendar to see how my time will be occupied. That too is the correct word. So often we feel occupied by the clock, occupied by the calendar, occupied by the obligations we have made. The crazy thing is most of the ways we spend our time are commendable. You are good people with kind hearts. All I have to do is mention there is a project or need which is church or community related and I am always overwhelmed by your response. You spend your time both generously and sacrificially. Wednesday night a church member who lives by himself had an unfortunate fall. After spending the day in the hospital he was going home with his arm in a sling and his body many shades of blue. He clearly needed help and because of the holidays, home health could not begin until Monday. From his bedside at the hospital I made one phone call. Fifteen minutes later I received word that eight of you had agreed to drop by and check on him through Monday. I know everyone of these busy folks had set aside time to celebrate the holidays. And yet a need was eminent and so time stood still.

        Sometimes, we are able to control time. But I suspect more often than not time controls us making it necessary to figure out how to be both in and out of time. We have to learn to look beyond today and figure out what tomorrow will bring. Those of us who are still punching a time card are very envious of those of you who have retired. From my perspective it seems you have it free and easy, getting up at the crack of noon, doing whatever you please, whenever you please. But then I sometimes get a chance to peak into your very busy lives. Retirement meant you just stopped working for the boss. Your days remain full, very much run and predetermined by a most demanding clock. So regardless if you are fully employed or generously retired we all still answer to the tyranny of time.

        The season of Advent dares to challenge the concept of time as something we calculate in minutes, or hours or even days.  The season of Advent dares to us move beyond personal gratification and focus our hearts and minds on the purest concept of the goodness of God.

Well that sounds good in theory but if there has ever been a time that we are captivated by time it would have to be the month of December. Deb and I sat down last week to find a day we could run to Richmond to do our Christmas shopping. After looking at our calendars the only time we could find was one lone Friday. Think of it, 28 days till Christmas and only one was free. And even to make that day possible we had to reshuffle our schedules. How can we stop and think of Christ? We are too busy doing Christmas?

Paul had a simple solution. Of course that is one his problems. Paul made highly dogmatic proclamations which might look quite commendable when hidden away in his Holy Epistles but are often terribly impractical when exposed to the light of day. Paul said, “Don’t let the burdens of life interfere with how you conduct your life. Stay focused, not on the task of the day but rather of the promise of tomorrow. Jesus is coming soon. The day of salvation is closer than you think. Look to Christ and the problems of this world will grow strangely dim.”

When Paul started that pep talk he was convinced the Second Coming was just around the corner. He knew he would see Christ before he saw death. But as Paul grew older he certainly must have wondered why God wasn’t cooperating. Good friends wrote to Paul informing the Apostle of the death of a loved one and wondered why their dearly beloved had not been resurrected to a new life. Paul was forced to reconsider earlier claims. He began to preach, “In life and in death we belong to God.” But he still clung to the notion that the second coming of Christ was near.

This is one of the reasons I consistently remind you to never limit yourself to just the New Testament. The message of God’s love and grace were first presented in the Old Testament and purpose of the New Testament was to expand on those gifts as understood through the life and death of Jesus. In practical terms, the poets of the Old Testament were dreamers. The writers of the New Testament were theologians. The Hebrew people loved stories and understood God through the telling of the story. The New Testament writers emerged from a Greek culture that valued the analytical. Reason and logic ruled the day. Unfortunately there was nothing reasonable or logical about the concept of resurrection. Paul must have often been asked a dozen times, “We hear your theory on the resurrection of the dead, but until you can prove it, we have no reason to accept it.” Paul responded, “Soon Jesus will arrive and you will see with your own eyes.” While it has never happened, thanks be to God, a culture of faith emerged celebrating what could not be seen or touched.

That faith has survived for 2,000 years, not by a belief in analytics, but rather in a joy of hearing the story told. When we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, I doubt there is anyone singing with the thought that Jesus will arrive in all his glory before the 25th of December. But we still sing, hoping for a glimpse of a heavenly vision that will stand in resistance to our understanding of relative time. We sing, praying for a vision of God’s peace that will transform our warring madness. We sing, pregnant with the expectation that perhaps this Advent season will truly be holy. We don’t sing the book of Romans. We sing the poetry of Isaiah.



God will judge between the nations

and arbitrate for many people.

They shall beat their swords in plowshares.

They shall beat their spears in pruning hooks.

Nation shall not life up nation against nation.

Neither shall they learn war anymore.

Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.


Have you ever thought about the idea that Jesus came to earth once and really doesn’t want to return until we begin to exhibit some effort toward bringing about the peace God so deeply desires? That is why we light the Candle of Hope. Hopeful people are not only aware of the obstacles that make life difficult, they work toward changing the circumstances that made those obstacles relevant.  Hopeful people spend Advent, and beyond, working to fulfill God’s holy dream. Let us together light the candle of hope.  Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thank God!

Luke 23:33-43; Col. 1:11-20


        When I was a child, Thanksgiving was a big deal. First, it was a three day school week. I eventually grew to love the vigor of the academic challenge…..somewhere around my last year in college, but as a kid, I viewed school as an unnecessary evil. Second, Thanksgiving meant a trip to Waynesboro where I got to hang out with my favorite cousin. I grew up in a family with three younger sisters. Having another guy around for a day or two was heaven on earth. Third and most important was the food. Between my mom and Aunt Evelyn there was always a table so bountiful left- overs lasted for days and no one ever complained. At the conclusion of the feast my cousin and I would head back outside till dark, burning off calories and readying ourselves to devour more turkey and pie. On reentering the kitchen I would notice two aged women who vaguely resembled my mother and aunt. I would wonder why they seemed so tired and burdened on this festive day. Now, nearly 60 years later, as Deb and I joyously anticipate the arrival of a boat load of family, I suspect Deb will have the same glazed look on her face come Thursday evening. Through the years I have come to understand a full appreciation of Thanksgiving begins by giving gratitude to those who are weary and burdened.

        You know the story of the first Thanksgiving? Oh, I am not talking about the feast at Plymouth Rock or even an earlier celebration in Jamestown. I am talking about the one that happened years before America was inhabited by any Europeans. I am speaking of the conversation between two men suspended against both the sky and time as one said to the other, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

        Our crucifixion text seems so out of place as we prepare to stuff both the turkey and ourselves in the coming days, but this morning is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent. Christ the King Sunday and the texts that compliment it often seem in conflict with our celebrating Thanksgiving. On the surface, what does a conversation between two condemned men have to do with giving thanks? Perhaps there is none. Yet if you will allow me to take what some might characterize as an inappropriate hermeneutical leap, I believe there is an unmistakable intersection to be discovered.

        Who was the man being crucified with Jesus? We really don’t know yet his identity is more complicated than one might suspect. While the ethics of the Old Testament reflects an eye for an eye mentality, it was almost impossible for a person to be put to death under rabbinical law. The first reason was theological. Life is sacred.  To take the life of another was considered to be against the will of God. Second, the taking of a life was impractical. Jewish law is based on reimbursement. If I kill the husband of a family and am executed, who is going to be responsible for the financial welfare of the family?  It is explicit   in the Talmud that the one committing a crime must be punished in a way that compensates the family.

        Therefore, we can conclude the man hanging beside Jesus was being punished by Roman rather than local law.  Perhaps he stole from the Romans and his punishment sent a message to the general population. Perhaps he was a revolutionary plotting the overthrow of Roman occupation. Perhaps he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe the man deserved to die. Certainly he was not innocent for he admitted guilt. It hardly matters. He looked to his left and saw the shell of a burdened, yet innocent man suffering his same fate and he asked to be remembered.

        A few years ago I walked into the sanctuary of an ancient Presbyterian church located in Eastern North Carolina. In the center of the sanctuary was an old mahogany communion table. From a distance there seemed to be nothing remarkable about the table, but as I moved closer I could see the carved words, “Remember Me”.

        Those words, certainly in the context of communion, have a double meaning. When I break the bread and lift the cup I often use the word, “Remember”. Certainly I am asking us to remember the sacrifice of Christ. But when we come to the table, like that not so innocent passenger on the train to paradise, don’t we also desperately need to be remembered. Then once we realize…or remember…the restorative power of God’s grace, we give thanks. 

        Isn’t this the very purpose of Thanksgiving? It is a day when we take a break from our routine to remember, and then respond to the generosity of another. Looking back to the settlers of either Plymouth Rock or Jamestown, no feast would have occurred without remembering both the graciousness of God and the sacrifice of those who did not make it to the table. For without the sacrifice of the tired and the burdened, is a day of Thanksgiving even possible?

        An unknown man, stranded between heaven and earth, saw something holy in the burdened face of Jesus. And a blessing was received. A hungry family, anxious to dig into a meal over which they did little to prepare, sees something  saintly in the tired face of the one responsible for the feast. And a blessing is received.

        I am hopeful this Thursday, before the first plate is served, we will all bow our heads and give thanks to God. Such thanks are richly warranted. Much sacrifice was offered in the preparation of our taste of paradise. As you pray, do not forget the one who made the feast possible through her labor of love. As we pray, do not forget the one who made paradise possible through his labor of love. Each time we pray together, allow our prayers to remember the weary and the burdened that have made all that is good possible. By doing so, you too will be remembered.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Luke 21:5-19, Isaiah 65:17-25
        “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified for these things must happen first. Nation will rise against nation; there will be earthquakes, famines, plagues, and great signs from heaven.”
While these are not exactly comforting words from our Lord and Savior,    I will be honest with you. As I pulled myself away from the election results early Wednesday morning I pretty much convinced myself the words of Jesus were about to come true in our life time. This shows both my naivety and political bias. Of course sharing my disappointment with Tuesday’s results surprises none of you.  I ranted and raved until about 8:00 a.m. when I knew I could either hide or take my punishment by going to wood ministry.  On arrival it did not surprise me that some of my fellow workers took particular delight in my despair. Like it or not, that is what guys do. Deciding this was no day for a puny gas driven wood splitter, I picked up my sledge hammer and decided to take out my frustration on some very large pieces of oak. With Paul Bunyan-like blows, and the help of an equally frustrated Democrat, Leslie and I made short work of our helpless foes for the better part of the morning. OK, maybe it was closer to 45 minutes, but for every one of those minutes our weapons of mass destruction rang true to their mark as our adversaries quietly observed the tenacity of our rage. And then it was over. Exhausted I sat down and noticed how much work still needed to be accomplished…………… together.
        I am not sure how exactly the folks who created the lectionary came to decide which text would be linked to one another. I am certain the last thing they had in mind was that these texts from Luke and Isaiah would appear the Sunday after a national election. But here they are. The gospel text reads like the manuscript from a Zombie Apocalypse movie. The Isaiah text sounds, well it sounds like Isaiah, a pie in the sky, rose colored version of what the earth ought to be like. Neither seems very realistic yet both might be the perfect texts for this morning.
        Before 9-11, how many of us really believed something like the destruction of the World Trade Center could happen? I remember visiting the twin towers in the late 1990’s. Their prominence on the skyline of New York averted ones eye from the previously iconic Empire State Building. And yet in a matter of hours they were gone.  When Jesus spoke of the destruction of the Temple few folks took him seriously. This was the Temple. It was the center piece of the great city. It had stood for 500 years, surviving both Greek and Roman invasions. Yet by the time the book of Luke was written, the Temple gone, little more than a memory in the minds of the people reading this gospel. This text shone like a beacon to Luke’s readers warning that unimaginable tragedies would shake the very core of their existence. But then it offered this word of hope, “By your endurance, you will gain your soul.”
        For some of you, endurance came in surviving the last eight years. For others endurance will come as we wonder what the future will bring. The folks receiving Luke’s gospel were not much different than us. To some the destruction of the Temple was devastating. Others did not even realize there had been a temple in Jerusalem. What they did know was in the days to come, it was not their faith in a political system that would sustain them but their faith in a God who continually encourages God’s people to strive for a new heaven and a new earth……………. together.
        If anything this election has proven that we are a divided nation. That does not mean that we need to become a divided community. The strength of this congregation has always been its diversity. While the sign outside declares us to be Presbyterians, it is not the theology of Calvin or Knox or Wesley or Luther or Augustine or even Billy Graham that brings us to this place. It is the love of God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
We come, male and female, Republican and Democrat, gay and straight, old and older to this sacred place where holy expectations are placed on each of us.
We come, with varied opinions, varied strengths, varied talents and varied attitudes to this engaging place where the needs of a few have always been as important as the wellbeing of the many.
We come, not just because we like each other, but because we are committed to the welfare of each other. Then together we feed the hungry, care for the young, nurture the old, embrace the forgotten and love the unloved.
Isaiah 65 is of my favorite chapters in the entire Bible. The people of Israel have returned from Babylon after generations of captivity. They come to Jerusalem, a city dismantled and sitting in ruins. To recapture its former glory seems impossible because the captives themselves are disheartened and confused. How do you build without a vision? How do you endure without a dream?
The poet speaks, “God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth. The former shall not be remembered. Be glad in what God is about to do.” We have endured two years of folks from both parties promising what they are going to do. Excuse me if I am a little skeptical but I am old enough to remember a lot of elections, and a lot of promises, and a lot of promises forgotten once the election was over. So what does God promise in the 65th chapter of Isaiah?
One – Children will be cared for.
Two – The elderly will be celebrated.
Three – People will have houses to live in.
Four – People will pick fruit from their own garden.
By golly, that just begins to describe what we do. Every week we gather food to insure children will not go hungry over the weekend. Every week we visit the elderly and care for those suffering from dementia. Every week we heat homes so home owners can afford other necessary commodities. Every week we plan new ways to assist folks who want to grow their own fruits and celebrate their own lives. Every week we concentrate, not on yesterday, not on tomorrow but on today. One day at a time, one person at a time, one step at a time we are bring about God’s vision………..together.
Legend has it when Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew the world was coming to an end. He responded, “If tomorrow is the Day of Judgment than today I want to plant an apple tree.”
Might I suggest, whether you believe the Apocalypse is upon us, or the veil of darkness has finally been lifted, we go out and plant an apple tree…………………together.
To God be the glory.       Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

So What About Heaven?

Luke 20:27-38


        Some folks are convinced every answer to any human dilemma can be found in the Bible. I don’t happen to be one of them. Those same folks also live with the illusion God will answer all our questions if we are faithful enough. I believe more in God’s faithfulness than my own but that still doesn’t make me privy to the mystery of God. Some things simply cannot be proven, only believed. That can be both the strength and the heartburn of any belief system.

        At our pub theology meeting last week John Savides asked the group if hell existed. Now this is an interesting group that has gathered every second and fourth Thursday at Bold Rock. Most are members of this church but some of the folks have no connection with any organized faith. When John asked the question I wanted to excuse myself and run for something to drink. I knew all eyes were eventually going to stare in my direction. Since I don’t drink, I figured one glass of anything would put me under the table. At least if I was inebriated, I would not be held accountable for anything I said. Fortunately, with this group my voice doesn’t hold much authority so I was able to listen to the interesting opinions of others. What I discovered was pretty much what I already knew. When a discussion of heaven or hell evolves, most of our opinions aren’t really all that biblical. Thanks to Dante, Milton, Jonathan Edwards and anyone who has written about seeing a bright light, our most memorable visions of heaven and hell have been created by folks that seem to have a fear of the dark. So what insights does Jesus give us?

While Jesus doesn’t talk much about hell he has a lot to say about the kingdom of God especially in the book of Matthew. Of course on examining those texts, we discover Jesus never speaks about a place with the streets paved with gold or even a gate where St. Peter examines the credentials of anyone who would enter. In fact the more we examine Matthew the more we realize Jesus was talking about how our lives down here on earth need to be more like the kingdom of God. That’s the problem with Matthew. Everything is spoken of on a spiritual level. If we want to get down to brass tacks, we need to turn to the Book of Luke.       

The classic text concerning heaven is found in Luke 20.  The Sadducees had just grilled Jesus on paying taxes and were a bit disappointed when Jesus said, “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God.” The Sadducees wanted Jesus to come across as some political insurrectionist but his answer hardly raised anyone’s blood pressure, so they figured they would trip up Jesus with a theological question.

Jesus had begun to talk about resurrection, a concept the Sadducees believed to be heretical.   They weren’t satisfied to just tell Jesus he was crazy. They wanted to embarrass him in front of the masses. Taking a text from the book of Deuteronomy, the Sadducees tried to show Jesus how ridiculous the concept of heaven sounded. They asked him a riddle. A married man had seven brothers. According to the Law of Moses if the man should die, one of the brothers would be responsible to step up and marry the widow. Well what if the brother who married his dead brother’s wife died.  And what if this happened seven times until all eight brothers had married the woman and left her a widow. Then, after burying eight husbands, the woman died. The question asked was, if there is a heaven, when the woman arrived, who was her husband?

These sounds like a question that comes from someone in a Sunday school who loves to present ridiculous scenarios just to get a rise out of the rest of the class. I am sure you have all experienced this. One of the favorites used to be, “If a child is born in Africa and never is exposed to the story of Jesus, will the child go to hell?” That question has been asked so many times it amazes me that we don’t have 10,000 missionaries in Africa. Of course the reason is no one really cares about the child, only the argument.

So the Sadducees, full of themselves after asking a question with no logical answer, sat back and waited to hear the teacher’s answer. There is no way they could have expected to hear what Jesus said. “God is not a God of the dead but of the living.” In other words Jesus said, “How can you make jokes about something you know nothing about?”

Death is serious business. This year we celebrated the resurrection of Kemp, Ralph, Ann, Barbara, Frankie and Sarah. Such an interesting choice of words we use, celebrate the resurrection. I vividly remember each of those “celebrations.” Each death seemed too soon. Each service exposed a sadness that blunted our celebratory nature. Yet we fervently clung to the belief that the journey of those we loved for a moment or a lifetime will continue into God’s eternity. Each time we come back to the grave, we need to be reminded that God is the God of the living because the weight of death is often more than we think we can bear.

The Sadducees could joke about death because at that moment none of them were on the way to a funeral. They could joke about death because the words of this itinerate preacher seemed ridiculous. But death is no laughing matter. It has touched each person in this room and it will touch us again. Yet what we must hold onto is not how our cherished ones died but how they were loved, for in the grand scheme of things isn’t that what really matters.

I loved grumpy old Kemp when he laughed. I loved reserved Barbara when she didn’t have to be “the lawyer.” I loved prim and proper Ann when she worried about Doug. I loved Ralph because he never met a stranger. I loved Frankie every time he told the same story. I loved Sarah just because she was Sarah. What we loved about of these folks continues as we live out the story of our lives. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Everything will eventually come to a close, except love, and love never ends.” 

I believe God is the God of the living. To be more exact, I believe God is the God of love. This puts no time limit on how long God loves us because God’s love is forever. 

If you must ask me about heaven, I must warn you I don’t have a clue. Are there streets of gold? Well that’s one’s person’s version. Will we know our loved ones when we get there? I can’t tell you. Mary Chapin Carpenter calls it, “A place with a ‘to die for’ view.” Poets are usually better at stringing words together than the rest of us. What I believe is that God is the God of the living and not the dead. What I do believe is God transcends death by loving us more than we would deem possible. Therefore I believe whatever is beyond death is most certainly crafted by the imagination and love of God. That in itself tells me not to worry about it. 

To God be the glory. Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Mighty Fortress

Psalm 46


        I think Pat would be delighted if we would sing A Mighty Fortress at least twice a month. Today she must be doing cartwheels because the choir opened the service with an inspiring take on Luther’s classic and we will visit it again for our closing hymn. If you can see Pat behind the organ, note the smile that will certainly light up this room as she plays this personal favorite to conclude the service.

        This might surprise you but Martin Luther did not write “A Mighty Fortress” immediately after he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel on October 31, 1517. Some have speculated the song came after a great battle with the Moors in Austria. This too is false. The greatest myth is that Luther wrote the hymn as a protest against the Pope and the power of Rome. While Luther certainly struggled with Rome, the song was written years after he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X.

        The actual story is not very exciting in terms of explaining the theological transformation of this catholic scholar. But its telling is critical to the life of a man who had a family he dearly loved. In the year 1529, twelve years after the 95 Theses, seven years after Luther married Katarina von Bora, and four years after he founded his new church, a deadly disease broke out in Wittenberg. Katarina, pregnant with their third child, and Hans, Luther’s oldest son were infected. While both survived, the baby died soon after birth. Luther writes about those days as the darkest period of his life. This theological giant, who stood toe to toe with history, was being destroyed a day at a time by the physical ailments of his family. As he had done so many times in the past, Luther found comfort in the Psalms.

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in time of trouble, therefore we will not fear even if the earth should change and the mountains shake in the heart of the sea. For there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. The Lord is with us. God will be our refuge.”

We are a proud and powerful people who like to speak of self-reliance as being one of our greatest virtues. Sometimes we forget how weak we really are. The Psalmist speaks of mountains being toppled by the fury of the sea. As we sit in our beautiful valley that seems impossible. Yet stories are still told about the devastation of Camille. The Tye River became a roaring ocean and little in its path survived. Such is the clout nature can unleash.

On a much smaller scale, many of you have sat with a loved one trying to discern the words of your doctor. What seemed to be a nagging cough or just a loss of energy has now been given a name and that name has ripped the calendar from the wall as the concept of a lifetime changes from years to months. How does one fight something that cannot be seen? How do you place your life in the hands of medications that might prove as deadly as the disease? Such circumstances call for decisions that are never considered when one believes themselves to be immortal. But rains do fall and cancer is real. Seldom if ever are we prepared for the chaos they bring into our lives.

If we consider a medical emergency to be devastating today, imagine what it must have been like in the 16th century. Preventable medicine boiled down to a single option, burn the clothes of anyone who had died. When the “sweating sickness” spread through Europe in the 16th century no one knew its cause or cure.  Folks watched helplessly as children and the elderly died after much suffering. Luther, possibly the most learned man in his community had no answers for the illness of his wife and child. Powerless to act, Luther placed his trust in something much large than himself when he wrote A Mighty Fortress is our God.

Imagine this husband and father, devastated by an enemy he could not see, having the courage to write, “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing?” Imagine the times you have sat powerless, watching hours turn into days, as some disease with an unpronounceable name turns your life upside down. The Psalmist whispers, “Be still”, yet how can stillness be possible? Luther speaks to our fear by adding, “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, one little word can fell him.”

Ironically, even as Luther places the lives of his family completely in God’s hands, he knew this did not guarantee their survival. Nothing is more certain than death. We have no record of how many folks in Luther’s community died but we can be certain Luther was spending much time caring for other folks who had lost loved ones. His response to this reality almost seems cruel, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.” How can we possibly let someone we love go? Yet how can we not? Listen to Luther’s final statement of faith, possibly written while holding his beloved wife in his arms. “The body they can kill. God’s truth abideth still. God’s kingdom is forever.”

Unlike many folks in the Wittenberg community, Luther’s wife and child survived. Much to his amazement, his song became an anthem for the Reformation. Even more amazing is this marvelous text has evolved into a living document.  Folks who have never heard of Wittenberg, or Leo X, or Charles V or the Diet of Worms, find hope and courage in these words dedicated to his beloved wife. A Mighty Fortress is no longer a Protestant battle cry and yet it has never been so universally accepted. The truth is I doubt Luther could have dreamed of a day when Catholics and Protestants alike would admire our current Pope. I am certain he would not believe the friendly interdenominational conversations we are conducting in the areas of baptism and even communion. Any funeral meditation I have ever preached is always secondary when compared to the astounding words found in this song.  Like the Psalm that was its inspiration, Luther’s hymn offers hope in the midst of despair.

        A year ago I was speaking with a Roman Catholic priest from Charlottesville. The topic of conversation was All Saints Day and I was explaining how I had only recently celebrated it as part of my church year. I told him our musical standby on that day was, “For all the Saints”. I asked if he had any other suggestions from his tradition. He laughed and then replied, “My favorite All Saints Day hymn is A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

        I was shocked until he added, “It is a song that reminds me that nothing, not even death, stands between us and the grace of God.”

        As I reflect on that conversation I am once again drawn to Psalm 46. “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms are tottering. God speaks and the earth melts. God makes wars to cease. Be still and know God that God is our refuge, a bulwark never failing. Know that God is our refuge, a truth that abideth still. Know that God is our refuge, a kingdom that reign’s forever.      To God be the Glory.     Amen.