Sunday, June 26, 2016

One in Unity with Christ

Luke 9:51-62; Galatians 5:13-25


        Messiah’s, from Jesus to Lebron James, all have that one moment when the followers are called together for, “the talk.” This is no ordinary rah-rah speech. Legacies are created from what happens next. I am sure last Sunday as that star laden plane flew toward Oakland, Lebron gathered the faithful around and said, “This is no longer about us. This is for Cleveland.” Likewise Jesus gathered the disciples and offered these words, “Boys, we are headed to Jerusalem. Are you sure you are ready?” Well they thought they were. Of course anyone can get fired up by a sermon.

        Luke, who must have been directionally challenged, sends Jesus and the disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem by way of Samaria. When it came time to rest, they entered a town and were not received well. The disciples, prepared to conquer the world, were rebuked before they could even get started. Furious, they asked Jesus to send fire from heaven to prove the townsfolk had snubbed the wrong guys.  But Jesus was only looking toward Jerusalem. He got up and started walking. Hurrying to catch up the disciples said, “Jesus, you know we will follow you anywhere. All we wanted was a display of your power.”

Jesus replied, “Before we reach the next fork in the road some of you will find a reason to leave. You are no different than the folks we just left. Soon you will all run home to your families. Should I rain fire down on you?”

Richard Shaffer comments, “Faith can be expressed and experienced in a variety of ways, but there comes a time in each one’s journey when it is necessary to clearly declare the depth of that commitment. God’s place in our lives is neither a matter of convenience nor something that can be taken for granted. Far too often, we resist the difficult journey Jesus would have us take.”

I applaud Shaffer for his insights. But I might also suggest few of us wake up every morning with our faces toward Jerusalem.  We certainly have our “Holy Grails”, our burning issues, that cause us to wail unceasingly against the diminishing light, but for the most part our lives are subject to the routines that have crafted who we are. If everyone had the perfection of Jesus, Christ would not have been necessary. Therefore each generation points to Christ-like figures who bravely march forward while we perform the necessary rituals such as caring for families and burying our dead. We are not the Holy One but rather disciples, a dedicated but flawed collection of followers caught in a precarious juxtaposition in which emulating the perfection of Christ seems truly impossible.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. God has blessed us with an inalienable right, a freedom beyond any constitutional declaration or legislative decree. God’s grace liberates us to follow the footsteps of Jesus. Picking up the cross is always on God’s horizon. But what are we called to do during our ordinary days?

The book of Galatians is worth reading in its entirety. Some have called it the Magna Charta of Christian Liberty. It is a serious conversation asking if we are saved by God’s grace or our righteous acts. This question has followed the legacy of the Christian faith for over 2,000 years. Are we capable of saving ourselves? I don’t think we are but unfortunately many who agree with me proclaim if God saves than we have no other responsibility beyond believing.

This answer becomes quite convenient should one desire to separate faith from life. For these folks church becomes the place one attends to escape the pressing issues and burdens of the day. They enter to pray for righteousness but hardly understand what the word means. They desire peace but are only referring to the restlessness of their own souls. As Paul writes to the people of Galatia, this picture of an isolated community is the last thing he imagined. As much as anyone who has followed Christ, Paul knew what it meant to submit to the mercy and grace of God. As Jesus had his eyes on Jerusalem, Paul extended that vision toward Greece and Rome. Paul suffered and died for what he believed. But Paul also realized everyone was not cut out to be Timothy or  Barnabas.  We the church, we the disciples of Christ, often have a vision limited to our families, our church, and our communities. But that restricted vision should never limit what we are able to accomplish in the name of Christ. God’s grace frees us to be more than we ever imagined.

Early in my ministry I realized I was not prepared for hospital visits. I like to celebrate life. I like to challenge folks to expand their thinking. When one enters a hospital, something has gone wrong. A routine has been disrupted. Decisions are being made that are life changing. The person in the bed is often in no condition to comprehend what is happening. The family sits quietly while a thousand questions and fears bombard both their intellect and emotions. Into this conundrum I entered, clueless.

Fortunately I encountered a surgical nurse who knew how absolutely worthless I was. When I entered her hospital room she greeted me with, “Louie, I am going to die. I know you don’t have a clue what to do, so I will help you. I will do the dying and you do the listening and the praying. Begin by praying for yourself. I suspect you need God’s help a lot more than I.” Three times a week I visited her. I learned to listen. I learned ignorance unspoken was a lot more important than limited knowledge shared. I learned how to pray, for both us. After a month she walked out of the hospital, fully recovered. It was not a miracle. She had misdiagnosed herself. But a miracle did occur. She dedicated what she thought were her last days helping me learn how to sit with both the living and the dying. Her eyes were not on Jerusalem. They were clearly on me.

Paul said to the people in Galatia, “You have been freed by the grace of God to be more than you ever imagined. Now you can clearly see the pain incurred when our lives are ruled by anger, factions, envy, drunkenness, and jealousy. Set your eyes on something higher. Practice the gifts of the Spirit.”  Practice love, joy, peace, gentleness and kindness. 

This week, we had a group of youth and adults representing our congregation in Guatemala. While some of us made a valiant attempt to prepare them for what they would encounter, sometimes experience is the only teacher. Each evening as they came together to evaluate the day and share their feelings, their devotions began with the group repeating a very simple phrase.

Gather us O God, Body, Spirit, Soul, and Mind.

Gather us O God, One in union now with You.


Christ would prefer our eyes to be set on Jerusalem. This is a frightening world and we need Christ-like vision to believe in what folks tell us is impossible. This is an extraordinary congregation and I believe some of you possess the vision to help the rest of us move closer to realizing the kingdom of God on earth.

As for the rest of us, we are called to have our eyes on each other. We are called through acts of compassion, through the willingness to listen, through patience, gentleness, and self-control to exhibit the joy bestowed upon us as faithful recipients of the grace of God.   Regardless if your eyes are on the world, or each other, let us be completely gathered in union with the Spirit of God. Our freedom in Christ is not evidenced by results but by our character being defined by the fruits we bear.

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control; there is no law against such things.”                                 Amen.


Sunday, June 19, 2016


Luke 8:26-39


            Sometime in the 1990’s a minister from a church in Michigan challenged his youth to respond to any ethical dilemma by first asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” T-shirts were printed with the slogan WWJD. As with any bumper sticker theology, the idea spread and sold like hotcakes. It became impossible to walk into Target or Wal-Mart and not find a display of wrist bands, in every color of the rainbow, offering the chance to join the holy crusade by announcing your allegiance to the one who believed in loving your neighbor as you love yourself.

        It was a wonderful movement which only lost steam when young people actually asked, “So what would Jesus do?” On discovering the answer, many quickly switched bracelets to “Live Strong” where they could emulate the narcissistic behavior of their new hero, Lance Armstrong.    

        Jesus is a tough act to follow. When someone dares to state, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”, it is easy to think perhaps Jesus is just a little too full of himself. I am pretty sure that is what the folks from Gerasa thought. Jesus stepped into a life and death drama with a solution that was hardly satisfactory to anyone. That’s often the problem when we witness what Jesus does.  

A man was possessed by demons.   I am not particularly comfortable with this kind of language. Many of you work in mental health. Thankfully the determination of the psychological state of a patient today hardly compares to the methods used in a culture which believed the world was flat. Jesus encountered a man who today might have been diagnosed as schizophrenic. It is important to note the intention of the writer of Luke was not to prove the existence of the demonic. In Luke’s culture, possession was the only logical explanation for erratic behavior. If you are comfortable with the idea of demons, so be it. If this kind of language seems primitive, that is fine also. Placing emphasis on this part of the story hinders us from discovering the real message of the text. Something was wrong with the man. Jesus had the power to heal him. The point is when Jesus used his heavenly ordained power the status quo was severely disrupted.

The madness of the possessed man frightened everyone. He spent most of his adult life in shackles in order to protect the community. According to the story, Jesus confronted the demons controlling the spirit of the man and ordered them to leave. Having no place else to go, the demons begged to be allowed to enter the pigs that were feeding on a hill overlooking the lake. Once possessed, the pigs charged over the cliff and promptly drowned.

Please don’t link this story to a beloved gorilla in a Cincinnati zoo and slander Jesus with animal abuse. I would remind you that in the Hebrew culture pigs were universally condemned as unclean. If PETA had existed, even they would have found Jesus blameless. The Hebrew culture viewed the death of a pig pretty much the way we would view the death of a rat. Pigs were an abomination. That said, there was a small problem. Jesus performed the exorcism outside the city of Gerasa, a Roman garrison. The soldiers occupying the fort were not Jewish. They enjoyed pork on their dinner plates and ate it regularly. The owners of the herd were enraged. Jesus had disrupted their very livelihood. Their loss was catastrophic. They demanded Jesus leave town before he could cause any more damage. And what of the man who was healed? Jesus told him to return to his home and declare the goodness of God.

 This is much more than the healing of a man possessed by demons.  Look closely and you will see a story ripped straight from our recent headlines.

I ask you, “What do mental illness, local commerce, and Jesus have to do with each other?”  Let me be a little more direct. What do madmen, the sale of AK-47’s and Jesus have to do with each other? Another mass murder ripped across our headlines and our hearts. Was Omar Mateen mad, was he mentally ill, was he a terrorist, or was he a combination of all three? I am not sure we will ever know but once again the conversation has quickly shifted to our national debate on automatic weapons. Some have asked why the mentally ill are allowed to purchase such a weapon. Others are asking why anyone is allowed to publicly sell a weapon designed specifically built for combat. A clear majority speaks of freedom and the right to defend oneself. It is an ongoing and I fear endless debate led by parents who have lost children against an industry with a huge economic stake in the conversation. What would Jesus do?

Jesus saw a man who was suffering from a lifetime of mental illness. He healed the man and placed the source of the madness into what Jesus considered to be an abomination. The pigs died and the owner was outraged. Jesus was forced to flee. What did Jesus do that was so wrong? He chose life over commerce.

So my question becomes, what value do we place on a human life? I have no idea how much money the gun industry makes each year. I do know it has been estimated there are 300 million legal guns owned by American citizens. I have no idea how much we as a nation spend on mental health? Maybe the numbers are similar? I suspect the gun industry spends a lot more on defending our rights to own legal weapons than it does on mental health issues.

Sixteen years ago I was drinking a coke in a bar in Havana, Cuba. The news broke concerning the massacre at Columbine High School.  My Cuban friends looked at me and asked a question I still cannot answer. “Why do people in America own automatic weapons? That is such madness?”

Orlando is proof that our madness continues. In our text this morning Jesus seems to be saying that life is more important than commerce. I realize my reading of this text is prejudiced by my disdain for the Gun Lobby. So what do you think Jesus would do? As you ponder this question in light of this text I ask only one thing. Allow your understanding of who Jesus is to be at the center of the conversation.    








Sunday, June 12, 2016

How Will God Vote?

I Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a


We are entering into a dangerous time in the history of our nation. How do I know? The prediction of doom can be heard on both CNN and Fox News. This is as rare as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton finding common ground. The most astute political minds I regularly encounter, my Friday morning golf group, warn me Hillary will blindly lead us down the road to economic ruin. These are smart guys so they must be right. Yet when The Donald speaks, those who desperately want Trump to be our next President wring their hands in utter embarrassment.

Who would God have us choose? Now there is an interesting question. History tells us that truth, particularly God’s truth, regularly gets twisted and manipulated until it would appear God supports the conclusions we reached before consulting the Almighty. The one truth of which I am certain is that humanity does a brilliant job of fooling itself concerning any wisdom God might offer. We claim to follow the will of God. Yet we stick to the wide road most often taken even though the Bible reminds us God’s path is narrow, complex and demanding, consistently sending us where we would  rather not go. Even Elijah discovered the “way of the Lord” to be very complicated.

The relationship between Elijah and Jezebel has no rival when it comes to two people hating each other. The Queen represented Power. Elijah represented God. I suspect it is a whole lot easier to represent power than God. Jezebel answered to no one, not even her husband. Jezebel did not worry about small things such as truth. When she spoke, she expected everyone, including Elijah, to respond. When she ruled, she expected everyone, especially Elijah, to obey. And when she worshipped, which was interesting because she worshipped herself, she expected everyone to say, “Amen”.

But Elijah was on a roll. He entered the desert and God pronounced him worthy. At a time when there was no food, God commanded the ravens to bring the prophet his daily bread. When the son of the widow died, Elijah stood on both feet and demanded God defy death. Then there was Mount Carmel. Playing odds that were 450 to 1, Elijah stood his ground before Baal. When the lightening of the All Mighty lit up the alter, Elijah truly believed his struggle with Jezebel was over. Someone forgot to tell him people of power don’t play by conventional rules.

With the flames still roaring on Mount Carmel, Elijah ran toward the city of Bethel to claim his victory. Now only one person stood between him and the abolishment of Baal in the land of Abraham. When Elijah reached the edge of Bethel, he was met by a messenger of the Queen. Jezebel’s words were brief, “Elijah, you shall die before the sun sets.”

This great prophet, fueled by the word of God, was defeated by a single sentence. Fear of the Lord was trumped by his dread of the raging Queen. Without a second thought, and certainly without any thought of God, Elijah did a 180 and fled to the wilderness where he spent the next 40 days hiding from Jezebel. But Elijah couldn’t hide from God.

This is an amazing passage. Elijah runs from death yet concludes death is the only solution to his dilemma. It is amazing the insights we reach when our lives are driven by fear. Hours after seeing Mount Carmel go up in smoke Elijah’s vision is blurred by panic. He forgets what God has done and can only imagine what Jezebel will do. He runs from his calling, he runs from his adversary, he runs from himself and runs right into the resolve of God. Let me tell you from experience, that is not always the most comfortable place to land.

My second congregation was a small church in Virginia Beach. I was anxious to have my own church after five years as an associate and Bow Creek was desperate for any one. Their last three ministers had been removed by Presbytery. One had an affair with the secretary, one had an alcohol problem and one refused to pay his taxes. I love my wife, paid my taxes and don’t drink so it seemed to be a match made in heaven.  I soon discovered what had led my fellow clergy to drink, love and tax evasion. We were a stone’s throw from three other Presbyterian Churches.  Our potential for growth was almost non-existent. I visited every member three times in the first year. I revamped many programs. I had a session retreat for no apparent reason. I did all the right things and found myself bored out of my mind. So I prayed, “God, show me a new direction, a new ministry.” It was 1987. God introduced me to folks dying with Aids.

God didn’t care that at the time I was probably homophobic. God didn’t care that I was totally ignorant of the disease. God did not care that I lacked the empathy necessary to comfort people I found disgusting. All that mattered was God’s children were dying alone. Since I had some time on my hands, I was the next guy up.

Likewise God didn’t care that Elijah was afraid of Jezebel. God didn’t care that Elijah was running for his life. God didn’t care that Elijah was having a moment of quiet reflection to understand the events of the past few days. All God cared about was Elijah was not where he was supposed to be. If this were a New Testament story we would expect Jesus to come to Elijah and quietly say something like, “Come unto me and I will give you rest.” But Yahweh lacked the refined edges of his son to be. The God of Abraham roared, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”

Elijah became defensive. “I have been your guy. I have done everything you have asked. But Jezebel wants me dead and nothing can protect me from her wrath.”

God responded, “I don’t care about Jezebel. Who is she compared to me? Go stand on the mountain of the Lord and remember who I am.”

I probably first heard this story when I was a kid at Vacation Bible School. The writers of VBS materials love stuff like this. They know that VBS teachers will do anything for a moment of peace and quiet. Bible School not only takes place during the hottest week of the summer, it is usually composed of all the rowdy kids in the neighborhood who have been dropped off by mothers also longing for a little peace and quiet.  

My first memory of this story went something like this. God said to Elijah, “Go stand on the mountain.” A great wind blew. Our teacher would tell us to blow as loud as we could. And then she would say, “Is God in the wind?”

And we would all say, “No, Mrs. Cartledge.” 

Then there was a great earthquake. We were all told to shake as hard as we could. Then our teacher would say, “Is God in the earthquake?”

Again we would respond, “No, Mrs. Cartledge.”

The fire would appear. We were told to wave our hands around like tongues of fire. Our teacher would again ask, “Is God in the fire?”

“No, Mrs. Cartledge.”

The Mrs. Cartledge would say, “Suddenly it became quiet. How quiet can you become? See if you can become so quiet that all you hear is your heart beating. When you hear your heart you are quiet enough to hear God. And that is when God will speak to you.” As extra incentive, she would also say, “If you can quietly listen for God for five minutes, I will let you go outside and have some Kool-Aid and cookies.”

The lesson for the day was the path to God, or Kool-Aid was through quietness. But that is not what Elijah learned. Nothing frightened primitive man more than the elements. Rain could mean floods. Earthquakes would destroy towns. Fire could seldom be controlled. Each represented chaos and each presented the greatest fears imaginable. Elijah stood on the mountain in the midst of everything that frightened him the most, and he was unharmed. Then when the anarchy of nature had done its best, God caused the chaos to vanish. A silence emerged that was so deep Elijah’s ears ached. Then God spoke, “Elijah, what are you doing here? If I can protect you against the wind, the rain and fire, why do you fear Jezebel?”   (Stop)

So let’s return to my original question. How will God vote in November of 2016? Will God be most impressed with pompous grandeur or crafty deceptions? Will God withdraw from the bedlam our political connoisseurs predict? Will God create a third party ticket led by the likes of Peter and Paul? Or will God quietly wait, wondering why God’s most intelligent species always runs toward chaos.

I have no idea what will happen in the next five months but I do believe this. When all the dust settles God will still be God. And that gives me hope.                      Amen.








Sunday, June 5, 2016

Speak Up! I Can't Hear You

I Kings 17:8-16; Luke 7:1-17
        “And then the son died.”
        Last week we began a brief journey into the stories of Elijah, a man Elie Wiesel called, “the toughest, fiercest, most irascible, inflexible character in all Hebrew scripture.” Elijah did not talk, he commanded. He listened to only one voice. When he was alone, he was the loneliest creature on earth. When he was surrounded by crowds, he was even lonelier. Elijah was a man of extremes. He rejected weakness and compromise. His severity and rigor were legendary. Elijah was and still is larger than life, particularly in the Jewish faith.
        But the son still died.
        This morning we only read part of the story. When Elijah appeared on the political scene, Israel was in the midst of a great drought. I not sure if you folks living in the lushness Nelson County can fully appreciate this. When I lived in West Texas we once went nine months without a drop of rain. Nothing even pretended to grow. Lakes and rivers ceased to exist. Bottled water was a necessity rather than a luxury. We went so long without even a cloud folks I barely knew would stop me on the street and ask me to pray for rain. I reminded folks West Texas had originally been barren and no amount of prayer was going to undo this reality. Needless to say, my theological conclusions were not helpful. They wanted action, not common sense. In times of draught, be it physical or spiritual, rational thought always gets thrown out the window.
Elijah was commanded by God to go to the city of Zarephath. Elijah was told he would meet a woman who would take care of his every need. Elijah arrived with nothing. Hungry and thirsty, Elijah called out to the first woman he saw and demanded she bring him something to drink. Imagine what this woman must have thought. This wild looking man shows up out of nowhere and demands instant service.  Elijah expected the woman to drop everything she was doing just to respond to his needs. I like to think we are a compassionate people but certainly there are some protocols that should be observed.
        What should the woman do? Being a widow she had no rights, no privileges, no voice. Being a widow she had resigned herself and her son to death. But what if this wild man could reverse her life? It is amazing how many folks down to their last dollar will buy a lottery ticket.  I am not making social commentary, I am just stating facts. A desperate woman was offered a mind-boggling alternative to death and she took it. Then a miracle happened. Each day the woman, the son and Elijah had enough to eat.   But the son still died.
        Death is never part of the plan. Many times I have sat with families as they watched their loved ones wither away. People often request I pray for death. Was the request made on behalf of the dying or by someone who could not go through another day of sitting, and waiting, and hoping for a miracle no one expected. Does the reason really matter? Then patient dies.  Even when death is no surprise, often emptiness enters the room and the survivor exclaims, “I feel so alone.”
        That emptiness is compounded when death catches us by surprise. I remember reading Charles Frazier’s book Cold Mountain a few years ago. I have heard it described as the Odyssey  of the Civil War. For those of you who have not had the pleasure, the book is two stories, told simultaneously. Inman is a southern soldier left for dead after the battle of Petersburg. Ada is a woman from Charleston Inman met briefly before the war at Cold Mountain. Inman decides to desert and make his way back home. Ada, after the death of her father, decides to stay at Cold Mountain in hopes that Inman will return. Both suffer greatly as the insanity of war makes each day more tragic than the last. Through the help of strangers, Inman finally arrives at Cold Mountain and miraculously they are re-united. Ada and Inman spend five days together planning their future.   Then, with the firing of a single shot, Inman is dead.
        How do we comprehend such a tragedy? In our text this morning, once the relationship between Elijah and the widow was established it appeared Elijah would have a place to reside until the draught was over. The widow must have wondered why she had been chosen to play a role in the survival of this agent of God. Yet she must have silently given thanks that Elijah’s good health also guaranteed the survival of her family. Then, for no apparent reason, the son dies. The widow is outraged. Before Elijah’s arrival she had prepared for the death of both her and her son. But when the prophet appeared all her troubles seem to disappear. Like Inman’s arrival at Cold Mountain, death had been trumped by the possibility of life. The woman finally had a reason to live then all hope was taken from her. She screamed at Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? Why have you caused the death of my son?”
        Elijah the strong, Elijah the faithful, Elijah the inflexible suddenly becomes Elijah the possessed. Rather than defend himself, Elijah challenged God on behalf of the widow. This is not a moment of quiet prayer but the rage of a mad man declaring God had killed the only child of the one person who showed him kindness.  Elijah claimed the death to be a senseless act and argued that God had no right to kill the child.
        These were bold words by a bolder man.  These were words that not only fell on the ears of God, but words that challenged the very heart of God. In an act of compassion, an act we might even consider miraculous, breath was returned to the lungs of the deceased.  The boy lived and God was praised.
        Perhaps I am stepping into dangerous waters but how can we not be inspired by the brashness of the widow and the rage of Elijah? If we believe God has the ability to transform death into life, then why doesn’t it happen more frequently?   Asking this kind of question can leave us less than satisfied.
        While death is a common occurrence, death still finds us in that tragic place beyond what we think we can bear. The timing of death is seldom convenient. Logical thought escapes us at a time when we need it the most. In our grief, in our sorrow, in our perceived loneliness, we grasp for answers and ask the most basic question of anyone’s faith, “Where is God?” 
        As a minister, I confess I often reach into my bag of well-worn phrases and suggest, “God is always with us.” While I believe this to be true, sometimes, when the son dies, those words seem so hollow.         What we want is a miracle. What we want is for the extinguished spark of life to burn once again.
But all we get is Elijah.
Inexplicably, perhaps now I understand why.
        Elijah is the one who appears to console and encourage those who have lost hope.
        Elijah is the one who stands in the midst of every tragedy, every agony, every tear, and every loss.
        Elijah is the one who understands our suffering and argues with God concerning the sacredness of life.
Elijah is not the Messiah but the one who points us in the Messiah’s direction when not today, and perhaps not even tomorrow, but eventually, hearts will be healed, tears will be dried and life will once again triumph over death.
Who is this mysterious stranger who appears from the wilderness and reluctantly wrestles with death?
It is you, each time you hold the hand of someone in pain.
It is you, each time you listen to someone speak until they have nothing left to say.
It is you, each time you bring a plate of food or a cup of water to someone who thinks they are not thirsty.
It is you, each time you care for a broken or angry heart.
We cannot stop death. But thanks be to God, we can help someone return to the land of the living.        
To God be the glory.  Amen.