Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Love Story

Hosea 1


        Deb and I have been blessed with two exceptional children. I hope all of you feel this way about your kids. We should all see our kids as unique and celebrate their accomplishments.  At the end of our days, I know Deb and I will look at who Martina and David have become and smile. They have given us such great joy.

        That said, raising them was not always a walk in the park. Both David and Martina had their moments. Martina made it a regular practice to inform us we were the worst parents in the world. More than once I received a call from David’s high school principal asking if my son could refrain from what his teachers described as inflammatory political commentary.  Our children gave us reasons to cry, moments of insanity, and days that seemed much longer than twenty-four hours.  But we never gave up on them. Why? We taught them how to walk.

        One of the most compelling love stories in all literature is found in the book of Hosea. No other book in the Old Testament, or perhaps the whole Bible, so perfectly describes the depths of God’s love for humankind. That last sentence might seem a bit over the top. Some folks will incorrectly insist that there is a great disparity between the God of the Old and New Testament. These folks limit the God of the Old Testament to a deity who is fierce, jealous, all powerful, all knowing, all judging, and then miraculously God develops a softer, more loving side. Perhaps such a belief comes from never venturing past the stories of Noah or Joshua. God’s propensity toward grace and mercy was quite evident long before the birth of Jesus.   

        Hosea loved Gomer. If only the story could have been that simple. From the first day he laid eyes upon her, Hosea was smitten. But the neighbors were stunned. How could such a nice young man be so blind? Everyone knew that Gomer was a prostitute. She would run to whoever laid down the most money. But Hosea was in love. He refused to listen to the whispers. He knew, if given the proper chance, he and Gomer could create the love story of a lifetime. Ignoring his parents, his neighbors and anyone else within ear shout, Hosea proposed, and Gomer accepted.  The day of the wedding, half the town covered the odds that the marriage would not last a year. No one believed Hosea could turn a prostitute into Julia Roberts. But then Gomer became pregnant, not just once, but three times. People began to forget who she had been and marveled at whom she had become. Only one person remembered and unfortunately, it was Gomer.

In Gomer’s defense, it is not easy to be the wife of a prophet. Every morning Hosea would get up, go to the center of town and declare the sky was falling. When he got home, Hosea complained no one took him seriously. At some point Gomer grew weary. She needed something different, something exciting. She wanted to live in a world which was more stimulating than changing diapers. She had forgotten how lost she had been before Hosea. She just wanted out and so she left.

The memories of the entire neighborhood were rekindled. They ridiculed Hosea, reminding him what a fool he had been. But Hosea would not hear of it. To anyone who would listen he cried out, “I love her. I refuse to give up on her. I will bring her home.” There is nothing more foolish than a person hopelessly in love.

Gomer returned to her former life. She was no longer young and desirable. The men who bought her were cruel and despicable, often beating her to an inch of her life. It was into this hell that Hosea transported himself. He demanded Gomer be returned but the men who owned her were only interested in making a profit.

“What will you give us for this broken down old hag?”

“I will give you whatever you ask.”

“Is she worth more than everything you own?”

She is worth that and more.”

“Then that shall be the price.”

The money was exchanged without even a promise from Gomer that she would go home. That is how much Hosea loved her. And that is how much God loves us.

The story of Hosea was written more than 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Historically, Israel was a mess. The Northern Kingdom had separated from Jerusalem and the worship of Yahweh as the one true God had been replaced with an allegiance to Baal. In the story, Gomer represents the wayward people of Israel, seeking pleasure for the day rather than considering what seemed to be the impossible demands of a jealous God. Bad treaties and reckless military exploits had left Israel crippled and ripe for invasion. To the north, the Assyrians seemed ready to swoop down and finish off what was left of the broken nation. The theological questions that are raised in this book center on one word, “Why?”

Why should God care? Why should God restore Israel to her former glory? Why should God base God’s concern for Israel on this most fragile emotion? Why should God continue to love Israel? The answer defies logic and does little to sooth the rational mind.  “I taught you how to walk.”

These days everyone owns a cell phone. The least important aspect of this piece of modern technology is communication.  Cell phones have an app which buys movie tickets. There is an app that can find your car should you forget where you parked. There is an app which turns your phone into a flash light for those who can afford to go to the movies at night. But most amazing of all, phones now have an app which allows you to make your own movies. Thirty seconds after my granddaughter took her first steps my phone rang. After thirty minutes of instructions from my patient son-in-law, my phone allowed me to witness those steps. Is that great or what?

Actually that is not a redundant question. Today, we record everything. Then we store it somewhere in the clouds and believe we will be able to retrieve it on demand. But what happens if it gets lost? What happens if it is a clear day and there are no clouds? What if the Russians hack our phones and the memories are stolen?

Thirty-five years ago, when my daughter took her first step, I didn’t have a fancy phone to record the precious event. But that memory is still burned within my brain. I can shut my eyes and witness it as if I were yesterday. But walking was never enough for that little girl. I taught her how to swim, I taught her how to ride a bike, I taught her how to run. With each new discovery came new freedoms, and choices, and responsibilities. I hoped each road she picked would be the right one. I taught her to stand on her own two feet. I encouraged her to take that initial step. Finally, I released her hand. Why? Because I love her. Such is God’s love for you.

Our initial steps are burned into the brain of God. The love of God is not just occasional. The love of God is not just something that occurs when it best suits God. The love of God is not removed when we venture precariously on our own. The love of God is not lost when we lose our way. God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting. Neither our waywardness nor the consequences that might follow have the last word. God’s intentions have always been redemption and restoration. Listen once more to the words of the prophet Hosea.

How can I give you up? How can I hand you over?

My heart recoils within me;

My compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not execute my fierce anger,

I am God, not mortal, the Holy One in your midst. 

I will not come in wrath.

It was I who took you in my arms.

It was I who bent down and lifted you to my cheek.

It was I who taught you how to walk.


        To God be the glory.   Amen.   

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Familiar Story and Unfamiliar Song

Psalm 82; Luke 10:25-37
A Familiar Story and Unfamiliar Song
        Psalm 82 begins with God entering the divine council of the gods and declaring judgment. This throws us for a bit of a loop. Who are these other gods? What is this divine council? I thought there was only one God. Charles Aaron, a Methodist minister from Texas, remarks, “Mythology is often just below the surface of OT thought. In Psalm 82, it bubbles to the top in plain view.” I believe while this phenomenon is certainly worth exploring, let’s put it on the backburner for a moment and concentrate on the song.
        God speaks, “How long will you judge unjustly by showing partiality to the wicked? When are you going to demonstrate justice to the weak and the orphan? How long must I wait for you act righteously toward the lowly and the destitute? When will you deliver them from the hand of evil?”
        While this Psalm may be new to you, I would like to suggest the prayer is one we have uttered many times. Even though the Bible proclaims it rains on both the just and the unjust, it seems too often the weak and the lowly endure hurricanes rather than a gentle spring shower. Civilian casualties in the Middle East have exceeded reasonable calculation and my only recourse is to pray. International airports have become killing zones and all I can do is lift my eyes toward heaven. Rivers and streams in West Virginia, often rerouted by coal companies, have become a torrent of death destroying anything in its way and all I can do wonder aloud why God would bring such misery on those who are already miserable. I don’t know about you, but God and I are constantly involved in a monologue about these things I cannot control. I say monologue because God has remained eerily quiet. Perhaps God has no answer for my rant. Perhaps the Almighty is waiting for me to shut up. Perhaps God has spoken and I haven’t been listening. Perhaps God is just as put out with the affairs of the world as I. Or perhaps God wants me to remember with every song of complaint comes a story of redemption.
        I hope this morning no one is hearing the parable of the Good Samaritan for the first time. It is one of those marvelous stories we teach to children. Then we have to teach it over and over again as the child becomes older. Our initial spin around the block depicts an unknown man who chooses to travel a dangerous road and suffers the consequences. Ironically, the pillars of the community see the man from a distance but choose not to respond. Then the Samaritan arrives. He sees the man and has compassion. Spending his own money and time, the Samaritan insures the wounded is given proper medical care. When the story is finished, all the children are asked to go into the neighborhood and be a Good Samaritan to those who need a helping hand.
        Later, we tell the story a second time. This time we divulge the real identity of the Samaritan. You see, when Jesus told the story, the original hearers weren’t too excited about the hero. A Samaritan was an outcast, an unclean reviled half-bred of the “real children of God”. Ever since the Hebrew people returned from Babylon 500 years earlier, the Samaritans had been despised. They were not the remnant. They were the leftovers.   So when we modernize the story,  we depict the Samaritan as an outcast from society. When I told the story to children in Charleston, South Carolina in the 70’s, the Samaritan was an Afro-American. When I told the story to kids in North Carolina in the 80’s, the Samaritan had Aids. When I was in Texas in the 90’s, the Samaritan was a Mexican. If I told the story today, the Samaritan would probably be a Muslim. Whatever role we place on the Samaritan, the hearer needs to be appalled.
        But we can’t stop there. We must tell the story a third time with our focus on the other travelers.  One was a Levite, a judge, on his way to court. We raise the question, “How can the law be fair if those sworn to uphold the law don’t practice it.”  
        One traveler was a rabbi, a minister, who couldn’t stop to get his hands dirty. Again we are appalled. “How can someone who preaches about the love of God and neighbor not stop when the opportunity affords itself?” We have a grand time pointing fingers at those who claim to be just and holy but are really neither.
        Normally, this is where we would end our excursion into the parable. Allow me to suggest, in light of Psalm 82, we need to visit the story once again. This time, in light of all that we know, let’s pretend we are the wounded man on the road.  That is kind of hard to imagine because the traveler must have been a complete idiot. Who in their right mind walks down a lonely stretch of road with more twist and turns than can be imagined? Every rock was the perfect place for a bandit.  Every shadow presented a new danger. Yet off we go, certain nothing could ever happen to us. But then it does.
        Now we have a huge problem. If someone doesn’t notice us, we will surely perish. But what if the person who discovers is would rather die than help us?  Well that is highly unlikely. After all we are good, friendly, and even influential folks. Who could anyone leave us in the ditch? On the other hand, what if the person who comes by is someone whom we would rather die than acknowledge? Are we willing to take help from just anyone? Who is our neighbor? If we will not take their helping hand, what would we do if the circumstances were reversed?
        In Psalm 82 God says to the divine counsel, “How long will you act unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” God could have just as easily asked, “Who is your neighbor?”
        Just for fun, let’s finally explore the question I wouldn’t let you consider at the beginning of the sermon. Who is this divine counsel? In the days of the Psalmist, before the Hebrews had converted to the one God theory, it was generally believed there were a thousand heavenly beings under the authority of God. These beings were actively involved in the lives of humans, often interceding on humanities behalf. Some folks refer to them as angels.
        Does this divine council still exist? With the advent of the Age of Reason, this kind of language seldom emerges into any serious theological conversation.  And yet, I believe the counsel is still alive and well. Depending on whom you listen to America is still great or will become great by the end of November. Regardless, we as a people and we as a nation have the ability to make decisions that affect a lot of Samaritans. If you are in the ditch and in need of help but will not accept the hand of an immigrant, or a person of another religious background, or someone of a different sexual orientation, or one who is trapped by poverty or even someone you find to be disgusting, what are you going to do when 99% of the time the shoe is on the other foot. Oh we can be Boston Strong, or Paris Strong, or Orlando Strong or West Virginia Strong or even Istanbul Strong for 24 hours. But can we be their lifetime neighbor?
        Ironic isn’t it. For the past year I have been praying for God to do something to stop the insanity which seems to have knocked us into a perpetual ditch. Yet for an eternity God has been saying to those of us who wield unbelievable power, “How long will you judge unjustly? When will you show justice to the weak and the needy? Why do you ignore the lowly and the destitute?”     (stop)
When Jesus finished his story he turned to the young man who had begun the conversation and asked, “You tell me, who was the neighbor?” I find it interesting the young lawyer could not bring himself to say, “The Samaritan”. Instead, he whispered, “The one who showed mercy.”
That’s when Jesus had him, and that’s when Jesus has us.  Like God, speaking to the divine council, Jesus said to the young lawyer, and to us, “Go and do likewise.”                              

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Whose Table Is It?

Galatians 6:1-16


        At our last meeting of Presbytery, the final candidate for ordination was being examined. It was past 2:30 and the meeting was held outside.  Most of us were a little warm and ready to head home. The candidate was asked, “Who is invited to partake the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper?” The answer is routine. Everyone who has taken Polity 101 knows the answer by heart. “The invitation of the Lord’s Supper is extended to all who have been baptized, remembering that access to the Table is not a right conferred upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving in faith, repentance and love.” I remember thinking, they had sure served her a softball.

        The young woman began with the answer I expected by saying, “The invitation of the Lord’s Supper is extended to all.” Then she noticeably hesitated before continuing, “Remembering that it is not a right conferred upon the worthy but a privilege given to the undeserving.” She looked up, well aware of the questions that were about to follow. It might have been 2:45 but some had not packed their bags.

        The first shot across her bow was an opportunity for the young lady to correct herself. “Didn’t you forget the phrase, ‘Who have been baptized?” 

        “Yes,” she replied, “Intentionally.” Then she continued. “Baptized children who come to the table have yet to make a confession of faith. Why should we refuse anyone who understands something holy is happening?”

        Once, when I understood my faith and the Book of Order much better than I do now, I would have been alarmed, perhaps even appalled at her answer.  As I watched a herd of Teaching Elders run to the microphone to expose her obvious heresy, all I heard my soul say was, “Amen.”

        The inspiration for Paul’s letter to the folks in Galatia revolved around one question. Do you have to be circumcised to be a Christian? That question hardly makes sense today. Can you imagine parents wanting their child to be baptized and being asked if the child has been circumcised? What on earth does that have to do with the parent’s faith in Jesus Christ?

        In Galatia, the first members of this congregation had been born Jewish. When Paul arrived they were overwhelmed by the story he told and expressed their faith in the risen Christ. They shared this story with their neighbors, many who were not Jewish. When neighbors came to express their belief and be baptized, the original members opened their arms and said, “We welcome you. But before becoming Christian, you must be circumcised. You must reject your heritage before becoming a child of God.”

        Obviously many of the new converts were not excited by this request. Paul, a good Jew and the leading advocate for Gentile conversion understood the problem completely. Circumcision was a cultural phenomenon. In the Jewish tradition, a boy is circumcised no later than eight days after birth. At the ceremony the name of the boy is first spoken. Then the child is lifted toward heaven and declared to be in a sacred relationship with God.  Circumcision is as important to a member of the Jewish faith as infant baptism is to we who are Presbyterian. But circumcisions were considered a pagan ritual in the Greek world.

In the church at Galatia two questions arose, “What does being circumcised have to do with being Christian?”  Second, “Why must I first become a Jew to become a follower of Christ?” Paul sided with the Gentiles by declaring the ritual unnecessary in becoming a new creation in Christ. 

        Circumcision as a religious practice in the Christian Church is no longer an issue, but this text continues to haunt us. Sometimes we become so rigid in our belief system instead of opening the doors to those who are seekers, we place a millstone around their neck. These stones are as varied as our faith communities.

        Four years ago I remember at the end of a worship service in the middle of October, every car in the parking lot was decorated with a pamphlet from a local church explaining how folks who were really Christian  were suppose to vote in the upcoming election. As outrageous as that might seem, I suspect we all have the occasional propensity to make our truth, God’s truth. When this happens we forget the true gospel has produced a church in which unity exists within a culture of remarkable diversity.

        There is a remarkable congregation in Beirut, Lebanon where Muslims and Christians come together to worship. The common thread for the worshippers is their love for Jesus.   When communion is served, the Muslims used to be excluded from the Table. The hard and fast rule was in order to take communion, one must be baptized. The Muslim congregants understood this but also knew baptism could mean being disinherited by families, the loss of a job and even be under the threat of death. The congregation prayed about this situation and decided the Table belonged to God and not to any denominational doctrine. From that day forward, all who came forward were served.

        The longer I have remained in the church the more I have come to believe that we are encouraged by God to live in paradox. It would be wonderful if everything was black or white. Maybe I should be appalled by Muslims taking communion. Maybe I should stand up every Sunday and preach we should be willing to die for whatever we believe. THAT IS EASY TO SAY WHEN NOTHING I BELIEVE HAS EVER CAUSED MY LIFE TO BE THREATENED.

        I once heard someone say that life in the Christian community is not based on the Law of Moses but the spirit of the Messiah. I can’t image anyplace this spirit is more openly reflected than the Table of our Lord. Listen to the words we use on approaching the Table.

        “Come all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

        “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will be cast out.”

“Take, eat, this is my body.”

        “This is a new covenant for the remission of sin.”

        “The Peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you.”

        Living in faith and in doctrine sometimes means living in uncertainty. Doctrine is there to direct us. Doctrine is firmly planted in history and tradition. But doctrine is trumped by grace. It is the Love of God rather than the Law of God which should always guide our hearts.

Therefore live in God’s grace.

Live in God’s commandments.     

        Live in the paradoxes this might breed.

Live in the diversity God creates.

        Live in the unity God desires.

        Come to the Table and feast on the imagination of God.

To God be the glory, Amen.