Sunday, February 28, 2016

Vision Beyond Reality

Luke 13:6-9; Isaiah 55:1-9


        “I just don’t see how we can make that work.”  How many times you spoken those words.  We examine the situation, we look at the roadblocks, we might even attempt an option one or two, but in the end we conclude sometimes you cannot put round cylinder in square hole. We cut our losses and move on.

We have all been in the sandals of the owner of the non-productive fig tree.  For a farmer, if a tree refuses to bear fruit, what good is it?  There were other trees, productive trees, fruit bearing trees that rewarded the farmer’s time and effort.  But then there was the one in the garden which yielded little more than shade.  The owner had given it three years now and his patience had worn thin.  He ordered it cut down. But the gardener still had hope and a vision beyond the reality of the moment. The gardener bargained for a reprieve to resurrect that which was thought to be lost.  

        One of the most comforting verses in the Bible is Isaiah 55:9, “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts, and my ways are higher than your ways.”   It appears Isaiah is just stating the obvious.  Of course God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours.  But how often do we remember this.  How often, when life has thrown us a deadly curve, or we think we have run out of options, does this verse come to mind.  Maybe we should have it tattooed to the back of our hand.  The God who found the where with all to create the universe out of chaos can certainly turn around our disasters.  God’s capacity for restoration, God’s desire for life, God’s ability to do a new thing, is often beyond our imagination.  But even so, often life just seems impossible.  

        One thing I admire about school teachers is their ability to discover a spark in the soul of a student everyone else has labeled a lost cause.  Teaching the students who are eager to learn is gratifying.  There is pride when those students receive academic honors. I suspect teaching those students is also relatively easy.  But I suspect every teacher’s proudest moment is when they can point to a particular young man or woman who walks the stage, diploma in hand, and emerges full of possibilities no one would have imagined a year or two before.

God gives teachers the vision to imagine what no one else thought possible.  It is not some sort of special vision where they can peer into another’s soul.  They have come to realize that sometimes, when everyone else has given up, and perhaps even the child has given up on themselves, there are still possibilities. Teachers instill hope where none previously existed. Teachers are good at doing that.  But this does not mean that the rest of us are precluded.  I believe first step to a miracle is accepting that God’s reality and our reality aren’t always the same.  Our mistake is listening to the voice of human reason rather than embracing the endless possibility of God’s grace.

Many years ago, I was trying my best to develop a youth group at a church that had not had a program for the past five years.  I decided to concentrate on the Middle School.  I began by trying to convince the kids that if we could find a common denominator the group would learn to trust and eventually depend on each other.  We talked about God, we participated in mission projects, and we even went skiing in the Rockies.  After a couple years of hard work they became a group that evolved beyond Sunday Evenings.  This “God thing” we talked about was transforming their approach to life.  And then Doug arrived.  Doug’s parents had recently divorced.  The mother stayed in Florida while Doug, his father, younger brother and grandmother moved to Texas.  Eventually the father took the younger son and Doug stayed with his grandmother.   Since she was Presbyterian, she and Doug began to attend our church.  

To call Doug a “bull in a china closet” would have been a compliment.  Everything about Doug spelled trouble.  He essentially had no parents.  He had no social graces.  He was too loud, too big and too unlovable.  His presence disrupted much of the hard work that had gone into creating what was becoming a very solid youth group.   No one, including myself, wanted Doug around.  But a couple of Sunday School teachers saw something in Doug I could never imagine.  While Doug was tearing everything around him down, they began to build him up.

Somehow, the youth group survived.  And so did Doug.  Eventually he channeled all that pent up energy into football and biology.  By his senior year in High School he had received an academic scholarship to a local university.  But that is not what I remember most about Doug.  I remember, the day our congregation elected Doug to be an elder at the ripe old age of 20.  Now Doug lives in Dallas, teaches high school biology, and is involved in his church’s youth program.  Doug’s story serves to remind me that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts higher than our thoughts. 

In the eyes of God, Doug is the rule, not the exception.  To put it another way, in the eyes of God each one of us is Doug,  a work in progress, and an opportunity for the gardener to create life. We limit the biblical text by only asking, “What did that gardener see in the plant?” We especially limit the text when we wonder what God sees in the Doug’s of this world.  What we might consider is, “What does God see in us?” 

Isn’t this a primal question of the season of Lent?  I know we are good folks.  I know we could find a list of reference that would swear we are trustworthy, brave and loyal.  But there has to be something more than that. We are a month from Holy Week, the celebration of that bizarre moment in history when many claim God allowed the death of his son in order that we might be given another chance at life. What sense does that make?

With that horrific thought in our minds, let us return to the parable. In the context in which it is told, the hearers knew Jesus was offering a new twist on an old story. In the fifth chapter of Isaiah there is a magnificent poem about a vineyard. The gardener went to great lengths to prepare the land. The vineyard was properly watered and fertilized. He constructed a wall to protect the vineyard it from predators.  And then he waited. At the end of the year the vines produced grapes, but they were worthless. All of the effort of the gardener was wasted. In anger, the gardener tore down the walls, threw away his tools and declared the vineyard could care for itself. Wild animals fed on the grapes. A fire erupted burning the vines to the ground. All seemed lost, until the gardener returned and declared, “From the stump that remains, I will begin once again. For such is my love for my children.”

Jesus revives the story having the fig tree represents all of humanity. The story portrays both God’s judgment as owner and God’s grace as gardener. Can you imagine being God and watch the way we turn on each other, operating out of fear and greed, and power and lack of human decency? The God of judgment must think, “What else am I to do?” Yet the God of grace continues to search for our smoldering twigs in the midst of ruin.

This parable makes such little sense to our logical and product driven world.  Even those of us who cling/wrestle with the significance of the cross, struggle with what really happened during Holy Week. Perhaps the love of God is more than we can understand. Sometimes, perhaps all we I can do is simply cling to this irrational God whose thoughts and ways are not ours.  


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Questions, Questions, Questions

Genesis 15:1-15, 17-18


        The first book of the Bible is Genesis. All of you know that. I suspect most of you are aware that the meaning of the word Genesis is “origin”. What you might not be aware of is that the oldest stories included in the Book of Genesis were not about the origins of the earth but rather the origins of the Hebrew people. At least seven hundred years before the Genesis story of creation was created, folks were sitting around campfires telling the stories of a man born Abram and later named Abraham.

        Many of you first heard the stories of Abraham as children. Abram and Sarai, a barren couple living in the land of Ur, were told in a dream if they would travel west, they would not only receive a vast amount of land, but also become the heirs of a great nation. It wasn’t the land that intrigued the man and wife. It was an escape from barrenness that inspired them to follow the setting sun.

        The text read this morning is probably the oldest memory of the Hebrew people. We actually have two stories of the soon to be fulfilled promise of a son. The other is the better known and was developed much later in the biblical tradition. In the second version travelers come to Abraham and ask for refreshments. During the conversation the travelers tell Abraham that Sarah will have a son. Abraham is astounded that someone Sarah’s age could become pregnant. Sarah laughs at the notion.

The original story stands apart from the narrative of Sarah’s laughter. Genesis 15 offers a unique yet timeless understanding of God.  The story teller wants us to realize any conversation with God should grapple with the complicated concepts of covenant, faith and grace.

        The story begins with a disturbed man. Abram believes he has done everything God has asked. He pulled up stakes and left home. He established a new place of residence in a foreign land and created borders that stretched further than the eyes could see. He even had a son by a slave, thinking that perhaps his legacy might be continued through his blood and not that of his wife.  But deep down Abram knew that creating a nation of slaves was never the intention of the promise. Abram and Sarai were called to live their lives in opposition to barrenness. This sets the stage for a conversation between Abram and God.

        God has the first word. “Fear not”. This is more than a casual greeting. Abram was consumed by fear. The promises of God were not happening. Abram’s barrenness shaped his every thought and preempted any vision he might have of the future. Abram’s response to God’s greeting is one of protest. “How can I not live in fear? We came here because you promised a child. Is Sarai spending her days washing diapers and dreaming of the future? No, we are enslaved by this absurd guarantee that something will spring forth. Well nothing has happened!”

        This is an amazing conversation that sets the theological tone for every religious expression that finds its roots in the faith of Abraham. God promises and Abram questions the promise. Let me be a little more accurate.  Abram protests and rants against the promise. In response, God said, “Your eyesight is too limited. You believe in only what you can see. You must believe in what I say.”

        Nothing in the Hebrew faith carries more weight than “The Word.” God spoke, and creation was formed out of chaos. God spoke, and the Red Sea was parted making a way where no way was possible. God spoke and a child defeated a giant. God spoke and exiles headed for the desert in search for a new heaven and a new earth.

        Initially we are awestruck by the poetic license of God. But then, like Abram, we struggle with the emergence of a certainty that is not based on human reason but rather on a primal awareness that God is God. There is no proof, no facts, and certainly no logic.  Abram was asked to look at the stars and then believe that God will make good on God’s holy spoken word.

        Talk about faith. Abram was asked to abandon common sense which is measured by what can be seen. Walter Brueggemann writes, “Abram is asked to make a response based on a promise made by a known promise-keeper. Abram is asked to believe that God can be the breaking point between an exhausted present and a buoyant past. Abram is asked to believe in a true Genesis.”

        Perhaps the New Testament equivalent to this story would be when Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was. Some answered John the Baptist, others said Elijah or Jeremiah. Then Jesus turned to Peter and said, “But who do you say that I am?” Without thinking Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Then Jesus said the most extraordinary thing, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

        This is the faith of Abraham. He did not go from questions and protest to confession through a rational observation of the way his world was working. He was transformed by a revelation, a vision, beyond his own limited knowledge. Story after story in the Old Testament tells of the flowering of that which was barren. Story after story in the New Testament tells of a faith that evolves from a vision that had mired down in the rationalization of what once had been a Holy Word. From the Old Testament to the New, faith has always been a reliance on God’s promise of overcoming the now in favor of tomorrow. Is it any wonder those who are barren become the real practitioner’s of faith? When one can no longer rely on their own our reality, then God’s Word, God’s hope, offers a new vision.

        This is a difficult concept for rationale thought because it calls on a trust relationship not only with God but also with those who claim God to be holy.  We like to look at a situation, make a logical assessment and then proceed. The amazing thing about religious thought is that it does not always make sense. Peter, not long after his proclamation of faith, tries to walk on water. And amazingly he succeeds, until the sound of the wind and waves capture his heart. Then Peter begins to sink. Our rational minds immediately conclude, “Of course he sank. No one can walk on water.” But Jesus responds, “Peter, your faith is so small.”

        Abram looked at the stars and he thought, “Can God be trusted to take me from this barren place?”  Are we so different from Abraham? I realize skeptics abound who would suggest that a belief in anything other than yourself is rather primitive. On the one hand I must agree. There is no denying that Abraham appears somewhat naive. Yet for those who believe in the revelations of God, no story could be more relevant. Haven’t we all struggled with the nightmare of being barren, or inadequate, or simply not up to the task. Haven’t we all questioned the mind of God?

        Abram looked to the stars. The Psalmist looked to the hills. I chose to look to the past. The barren Sarai gave birth to a son. The enslaved Hebrews were led to a promised land. The clueless Israelites were given King David. The decimated Jerusalem was restored. Humankind, which was lost, was given a Savior. Our history with God has always been a road from barrenness to Genesis, from death to a new origin. And that gives me hope.

        Many of you may not know the name Monty Williams. He played college and professional basketball and currently is an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is the father of five children. Last week-end his wife was involved in a car accident. The driver of the other car was completely responsible for the accident. Both women were killed instantly. Thursday Monty Williams, a man in the midst of barrenness, addressed the stunned folks attending his wife’s funeral. He spoke of the love he and his children had for his wife. He spoke of the pain he felt for the family of the other driver. He spoke of forgiveness and he spoke of hope. Every word he spoke resounded from a man who knew his journey from barrenness to genesis began by trusting God.

The cynic might cry out, “Where was your God the moment that car was hurdling toward your wife?”

A non-believer might suggest, “You speak of forgiveness today, but what about tomorrow when you try to explain this to your motherless children.”

I don’t pretend God heals all pain. I would never suggest faith eliminates worry, and doubt and fear or even death. But this I know. The God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the God of Isaiah, the God of Peter and the God of our Lord has never left us without hope.

Bill Coffin wrote, “Hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it. Hope resists, hopelessness adapts.”

We were not put on this earth to be without questions. Faith has never been a substitute for thinking. God expects us to push back and struggle with the difficulties of living. Faith is not blind. We come into this world with our eyes wide open. What faith does is takes us beyond the familiar. Faith challenges us to examine life and death through the lense of the soul. It is there we find forgiveness; it is there we find hope; it is there we are restored by the inexhaustible love and imagination of God.                                     Amen.





Sunday, February 14, 2016

Somewhere Between a Child and God

Luke 4:1-13


        One of the frightening realities of children’s sermons is if you ask questions, you might lose control of your message. I knew a minister who decided to create a scenario to help the children understand the temptations of Jesus. It began with a simple question, “Have you ever gone to the grocery store with your mommy or daddy?” All the children nodded their heads. The minister continued, “Have you ever found yourself in the aisle with all the candy?” Again the kids nodded. Brimming with confidence the minister asked, “What are your favorite candies on that aisle?” The kids eagerly responded with every candy known to humankind. The minister eagerly continued. “Imagine you are standing in that aisle, looking at the Baby Ruth’s and Snickers, and your mommy or daddy is still shopping for vegetables or fruits. Out of nowhere, a rather sinister looking character is standing beside you. Imagine that very creepy looking person picking up a bag of your favorite candy and handing it to you. What would you say?”

        A little boy loudly answered, “I would say thank you.”

        Therein lays the difficulty of the Temptation Story. We want to be like the little boy. I have incredible intentions but it is so easy for my eyes to lose sight of the prize. After we got back from Disney World I knew it was time to shed the pounds I had picked up over the holidays. Diets are so easy to start and they all begin the same way. I lay down the law to Deb concerning what I will or will not eat. I figure I can resist any temptation if it is not in the house. In other words, I lay the burden of my extra pounds on someone else, so if I fail to reach my goal it is not my fault. 13 hours after making my proclamation Deb and I were in Hampton for a funeral. As we prepared to leave the church, my father, sinister man that he is, handed me a box of homemade chocolates and said, “I’m sure you are not eating sweets but could you give these to Deb?”

What chance do we have? Temptation flies from all directions and the only sensible response is, “Thank you.”

Oh the box was delivered to Deb, of course it was two or three pieces lighter than when I had received it. And being the good person she is Deb’s immediate response was, “I’ll put these away and take them to the grandchildren.” But being the good grandfather that I am, I discovered the hiding place and before Deb took the box to Columbia I did my best to prevent my grandchildren from suffering from obesity.

I have started a diet 437 times and all have ended in failure yet Jesus, without food for 40 days, resisted the offer of a piece of bread. How did he do it? How did he resist the temptation to give in to the guy holding the bag of Butter Fingers? What has Jesus got that I lack? Perhaps the stakes for Jesus were a lot higher. Jesus was not interested in losing a few pounds. His very identity was being challenged.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that Jesus was undergoing the Son of God test. I find this to be a brilliant observation. In order to pass the Son of God test one does not live to eat. In order to pass the Son of God test one must serve and worship God alone. Finally, in order to pass the Son of God test one must not put God to the test. None of us could survive the temptations put before Jesus. Oh we might somehow survive the box of chocolates, but can we only be loyal to God? And even for a holy moment if we should deny conventional wisdom in favor of the Almighty wouldn’t we say, “OK God, I proved myself. How about making those forty days worth my time? How about giving me the keys to the kingdom?”

None of us are up to the Son of God test. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t tempted. Taylor says we get the Adam and Eve test. We are tempted by one apple, one opportunity to suppress our appetites and live in God’s paradise.  Of course we don’t do so well. Forget the apple; we head straight for the buffet table.

Temptation is a very real part of our everyday life. No one, not even God expects us to respond like Jesus. But must our response too often be, “Thank you.” Shouldn’t we at least be striving to find a place between the egocentric reply of a child and the moral perfection of God?

The seasons of the Christian year are set up to help us take this journey. We begin with Advent. If you truly want to grapple with the meaning of Christmas begin with this basic question, “Was Jesus God’s response to our transgressions?”  That should keep you busy for four weeks.

Christmas eventually morphs into Lent. It begins with time in the wilderness. Despite temptation, Jesus chose to live radically different from the status quo. In the season of Lent we are challenged to examine our lives in the light of Jesus. What would Jesus do? That is a good question usually followed with a difficult answer. It seems Jesus wasn’t all that interested in success, power or riches as defined by the world. His choices disappointed a lot of folks and led to his death. Our faith centers on what we believe God did next. After 50 days of trying to make sense of what the life and death of Jesus meant, we enter into what is known as the ordinary time, a period of prayer, bible study, revelations and frustrations that lead us right back to Christmas where we start the whole process all over again.

It reminds me of Groundhog Day. Each year we hear the same story. Each year we grapple with similar shadows that fall across our lives. Each year our actions establish if we are getting any closer to God’s dream.  It’s no wonder each Sunday we pray, “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.”

I think each of you will agree that if we dare to live then we must realize that life will be filled with tests, and temptations, and occasionally with events we can only define as evil. As glorious as life is, it is also hazardous. Sometimes we need help and we especially need help when we don’t know we need help. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Once a month I travel to Richmond to serve on a Presbytery ministry team called the Committee on Ministry. Each month I hear stories of situations where people going to church to worship God are seduced into the pleasure of playing God. Many of you have worked in business or government and I have heard your stories of people with enormous resources to do something good using those assets for their own power. Perhaps worst of all, I have witnessed marriages, an institution that empowers two people beyond what they could do individually, ruined because of one person’s manipulation and control. Evil takes root where goodness abounds because exploitation often begins with the best of intentions. We can’t be Christ, but we can carefully observe our circumstances and allow a Godly voice to keep us from temptation.

I was skiing Friday morning. I love to ski but I am not really all that good. When conditions are wonderful, as they were Friday, I ski with abandoned and wonder if there is an Olympics for folks over 65. On the far side of Wintergreen is a slope called Outer Limits.  Most of that slope is covered in moguls except for a thin groomed strip down the left side. As I was riding up the lift I turned to my skiing buddy and said, “I think I am going to ski Outer Limits.”

His response was, “Why, you can’t ski moguls.”

I replied, “I am not going to ski the moguls. I am going to ski the groomed section to the left.

Again he said, “Why, you can’t ski moguls.”

I snapped back, “I not going to ski the moguls!”

He ended our conversation with, “But you will end up in the moguls and I am not going to let you go over there.”

I fell silent until we reached the top of the mountain. As we turned away from Outer Limits and started toward Cliff Hanger I acknowledged he had rescued me from temptation.

Let this season of Lent be a time when you examine your life, examine your relationship with God, and examine the voices that claim to be godly. Choose carefully, and then take the road Jesus would have you travel.        Amen.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

God of our Weary Years

Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, do not lose heart.”
Paul had his hands full with the church in Corinth. Each time he seemed to take one step forward, they took three steps back. They were a difficult, perhaps even selfish bunch that struggled with what it meant to be a loving, caring congregation. But Paul refused to give up on these difficult folks. He wrote, “With the hope that God has given us, we are called to act with great boldness.”
Members of the Stewardship committee are on the edge of their seats hoping I am going to preach an inspirational sermon that will become the centerpiece of our campaign to raise money for our renovation project. I hate to disappoint them but I need to go someplace different; someplace a bit dark; a place of personal confession.
Just about every Tuesday I visit Rosewood Adult Care Facility. I am grateful that many of you also make that long trek to see Iantha. Last Tuesday, after spending an hour at Dillwyn Prison, I headed north to Charlottesville. Around noon I pulled into the Rosewood parking lot. My next appointment was ten miles away at 2:00 so I had allowed myself ample time to spend with Iantha. My problem was I could not force myself to leave the car. I sat in the parking lot for 20 minutes, trying to find the energy, or perhaps the courage, to climb the stairs to Iantha’s room. I never managed to find either. I could not discover what it takes to once again enter a room that housed the shell of a woman we all have known and loved. My heart is so weary of illness and death that I knew my visit would be anything but uplifting. I should have found the courage, but I could not. I left, promising myself I would try again next Tuesday.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way.  Some of you might recognize these lyrics from the third verse of James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing. Bill and Marlene Howard invited me to join them Sunday night for the Martin Luther King celebration in Charlottesville. I knew it would be long. I knew the speakers would try to emulate a voice that can never be duplicated. I knew it would be loud, but I am a lover of music from the Black Church tradition.
The service began with James Weldon’s Johnson’s famous anthem. The song traces the savage road of African’s brought to a foreign soil as slaves. It is a song of hope which does not deny the weariness and pain of the journey. It is a song anyone, regardless of color, should learn for it is a song acknowledging our God walks with us every step, regardless how rocky or smooth the road may be.
I can imagine Moses needing a song like this as he returned a second time to Mount Sinai. You remember the story. Moses had initially gone into the mountains to get instructions from Yahweh for the trip to the Promised Land. Instead, Moses received a set of laws that would place parameters on this wayward people. They were to acknowledge only one God. They were to take time once a week to worship and restore their souls. They were to remember and respect their elders. They were prohibited from engaging in stealing, murder and lying. They were good sensible laws and Moses was excited to introduce them to his fellow travelers. But when Moses came down from the mountain, he discovered all chaos had broken loose. The God that had led them from slavery had been replaced by an image molded out of gold. The fury of Moses matched the wrath displayed before Pharaoh. But rage can only burn so long. Eventually the anger of Moses was replaced with weariness and fear. Someone had to climb that mountain a second time. Someone had to confess for the sins of a nation. Moses knew while the sins were not his, the people were. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee. Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world we forget Thee. Moses understood the meaning of lyrics that would not be crafted for another 3,000 years. Weary, heartbroken, Moses climbed the stairs toward Sinai.
For 40 days Moses listened.
For 40 days Moses pondered.
For 40 days Moses allowed himself to be healed.
For 40 days absorbed the Word of God.
        And when he descended,
                His face and heart shone,
                        With the glory of God.
There are some rather unusual things that can happen when one sings or even listens to Black Church music. Sometimes it can just wear you out. It is loud, it is repetitious, and it goes on forever. Often we white folks don’t want to wait around for the spirit to arrive, especially when it takes 40 days to happen. Sunday night the choir was finishing its last song, a favorite in the black tradition. It ends with a rousing “amen” that starts quietly in the lower voices and swells as each new voice is added. By the end, the congregation is consumed with praise. Such was the case Sunday night. Almost everyone stood. Almost everyone clapped. Together, congregation and choir praised God.
If a white choir had been singing, worship would have concluded. But in the black church tradition, the service is not over until the organist says it is over. When the final Amen was raised I started to bolt for the door but the organist hadn’t finished. Jazz and gospel rifts filled the room until the conductor raised his hand and the entire sequence of Amen started a second time. At the conclusion of the second ending, you guessed it, the organist was still beckoning the spirit to come among us. Well my spirit had had enough and once again I entertained thoughts of a quick exit. And then my eyes focused on the faces of the choir. They shone with a light that was heaven sent.     (Stop)
        I suspect I am not the only person who has sat in a parking lot, unable to climb the stairs because of the lack of heartfelt energy. The good news is when we reach our lowest moment, God tells the organist to keep playing. That’s why we come to church. My best day might be your worst day or vise versa. So we sing, or smile, or touch a heart that is wounded. Some days it is our time to sing. Some days it is our time to listen. But we come, “For God’s grace gives us the hope to be engaged in this ministry.”
Sing a song, full of the faith the dark past has taught us.
Sing a song, full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun, let our new day begin;
Let us march on, till victory is won.                               Amen.