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.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Living our Dreams

Joel 2:23-29
        I am going to suggest that you probably have never heard more than one sermon with Joel as the main text. Truth is most folks are not even aware that Joel is a book in the Bible. Scholars don’t know much about this guy.  From his style of writing we can ascertain that Joel lived around the 3rd or 4th century. We might guess that the prophet had a pretty religious mom or dad because the name “Jo-el” means “Yahweh is God”.  I suspect he made his parents proud when he became a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Joel lived during a time when a heavy infestation of locust, the likes which had never been seen, devastated all of Judah. Crops were ruined, pasture land was left barren, cattle and sheep died, and the community suffered greatly from the food shortage brought about by this natural calamity.  Things could not have gotten any worse.  Finally folks came to the temple in Jerusalem where Joel resided and in the midst of their despair asked some difficult questions.  “What are we going to tell our children?  Why is this happening to us?  Are things going to get better?  Why hasn’t God intervened?”
        Joel responded, “I have a dream”. We who are a post Martin Luther King Jr. generation imagine dreams coming from mountain tops. Even Dr. King didn’t believe that. Dreams evolve from darkness and visions emerge after midnight. My wife claims I have an over active imagination. She is probably right. I know once I fall asleep I have little control over what happens next. I have a reoccurring list of dreams which I would not categorize as nightmares but are distressing enough to keep me from having a pleasant rest. I dream about being late or skipping a class when I was in college. It must have been either Biology or French because both did significant damage to my grade point average. I dream about getting on a train which never reaches its intended destination. I have other dreams which make my nights so fitful I witness the passing of each hour. What might surprise you is I never want to lose my ability to dream, because often I awake with a clear understanding of how to approach the obstacles of the day. There seems to be such a fine line between dreams and nightmares that I have found it becomes impossible to accept one without the other.
        In 1975 Bruce Springsteen burst onto the American music scene with his album “Born to Run”. The title hit was so explosive and filled with such positive energy that many folks failed to see the darkness that infiltrated some of his lesser known songs. By 1979, after two successful tours, Springsteen was crowned “The Boss” and folks clamored to discover what enlightenment would next emerge from the poet’s imagination. What we received was “The River”. It is a song the straddles that fine line between dreams and nightmares. A young man from a factory town wants to escape the life of his father. He and his girl friend go to the river and dream of new life. But reality stands over against the dream. They become pregnant, get married in a court room and he applies for a union card to work beside his father. Springsteen sings, “Is a dream a lie if it doesn’t come true or is it something worse that takes me down to the river?” Springsteen understood that dreams and nightmare can easily merge together. But this was no new revelation.  Joel was telling that to anyone who had the courage to listen.
        Sometimes dreaming is difficult because we are too easily convinced the world is headed to hell in a hand basket. This is not to suggest tragedies do not exist. I think of the situation in Aleppo and I am over whelmed with grief. And yet Syrians wearing white helmets continue to go into the ruins in hopes of saving a life. I think of Sue and Walt as they share with us the death of an oak tree outside the windows of Basking Rock Presbyterian Church. The tree is believed to be over 600 years old. Think of the heart break that must be going through this congregation as they witness the death of one of God’s greatest wonders. And yet they have not sat idly by. Even in their grief they are celebrating the gift that tree brought to them. Rescues workers from Aleppo and Presbyterians from New Jersey remind us tragedy only wins when we relinquish the desire to dream.   
        An ancient Irish folk song tells us, “It is always darkest just before the dawn.” The reason for this is just before sunrise the stars disappear from our vision. But this does not mean that they are gone. Yet haven’t all of us experienced a moment between the disappearing of the stars and the rising of the sun when we lose courage. And when this happens, the distrust that creates our nightmares and self doubt, floods our minds eye with a darkness that leaves us vulnerable. This emptiness, this fear, heightens our desire to exaggerate a calamity that might have been avoided with a word of calm or a voice of reason.
        Case in point. I am really tired of folks suggesting Nov. 8 will be a pivotal moment in American history. Lincoln winning the 1860 election over Breckinridge and Douglas was historical. Roosevelt defeating Hoover in 1932 was noteworthy, but twenty years from now I doubt anyone will remember the issues of this election.   So instead of being dragged down by the rhetoric of the moment, why not emulate the vision of Joel? Those of us sitting here support different candidates, different parties and different ideologies, but our primary motivation for being party of this church has never been about political allegiances but rather about creating a safe space for conversation and action. No matter how bad the landscape looks from your particular political viewpoint, on November 9th this church will still be a place where dreams become real and visionaries are celebrated. Regardless how we vote, our hope for the world is neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump. Regardless of the color of our political beliefs, we find our inspiration in the One who refuses to be limited by our nightmares and fears.
God’s spirit will be poured out on each one of you. You will dream dreams. You will have visions. And you will not keep them to yourself. You will have the courage to bring your dreams to the rest of us because this is a place where insane and irrational thoughts are not only tolerated but embraced.
Sometimes you must cringe at the nonsense that flows from this pulpit. Sometimes we might cringe during joys and concerns but we would never think to silence any voice. Sometimes our adventures don’t have a chance of success, but occasionally failing is better than never trying. Our motto has always been, “God so loved the world, and so should we.” It is an adage that takes us into another’s nightmare in search of a dream. Let us be courageous, together. Let us be tolerant, together. Let us be dreamers, together. For such is the way of the Lord.    Amen?

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Luke 18:1-8


        One of the first theological lessons I had to learn was God is not Santa Claus. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? We could just make our list, check it twice, and then wait for God to somehow make our wildest dreams come true. But we all know that is not the case. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had folks ask me to pray for their particular situation. When hard times, especially health emergencies arrive, we want God to address of our pain. Prayer is a powerful tool. It gives us comfort. It invites the praying community to share in our anxiety. But often the outcome we experience is not the outcome we desired. Does this mean we should not be persistent in our prayer life? HEAVENS NO! But perhaps there are other parts of our faith where we should exhibit an equal amount of persistence.

        In 1986 I met the woman mentioned in our New Testament text. She lives in Mexico City. Months earlier her capital city had undergone a horrific earthquake. Even today we have no idea how many people lost their lives, either because of the destruction or the health crisis that followed. Mexico City is an area that has consistently built housing skyward despite the knowledge that the city sits on the Middle American Trench. Over 4,000 multistoried buildings were destroyed. Another 12,000 were declared uninhabitable. No one could even begin to estimate the number of displaced people. Sophia Morales was one of those people. Her building was declared unsafe. She and her family were placed on the streets to fend for themselves. Unlike thousands of others displaced, she began to pray. And much to the discomfort of the mayor of Mexico City, she did more than just fall on her knees.

        Many of the first responders to the earthquake were rescue workers from Germany and Canada. They initially came with food and medical supplies but also promised building supplies for those who were able to rebuild. Sophia organized the families from her building and together they approached the aid workers. The families were told if the government would either demolish the building or give them land on which to build, materials needed to rebuild would be forthcoming. But the families would have to do the actual building. This immediately discouraged many folks. Sophia’s group dwindled to five families.  But that is all it took.

        For five consecutive months, six days a week, Sophia and a member of her group went to the mayor’s office with one goal in mind, ask the mayor for a small piece of land. After their initial contact with the mayor it was a month before they saw him again. But they saw someone from his office each day. At first they were told the mayor was looking for land. In the second month they were told there were too many folks with similar requests. During the third month they were escorted from the Federal Building daily. By the fourth month they were told to be patient. And then in February, five months after the earthquake, the mayor announced land had been found. The next day the five families and any of the original families who wanted to join them began to clear the land. When I met with Sophia and her group in April, the group had completed the structure for the first floor and was starting on the second story. The unit included space for eight families.

        When Sophia had concluded her story, I asked what held the five families together. “That is easy. These were the families from our Bible study group. We formed it over two years ago. We used to meet three nights a week. Since the earthquake we have met every night. This is what gives us hope. When the earthquake hit we were in the midst of a study on the book of Luke. When the workers from Canada and Germany promised us supplies we had just read about the widow who pestered the wicked judge to death. We thought to ourselves, “We will be the widow.” Our studies taught us that God is not only a God of love; God is a God of justice. As long as we were faithful, we knew our mayor never stood a chance.”

        I often think about Sophia Morales. I think about her when I see folks in Haiti trying once again to rebuild their nation. I have been to Haiti. They are a very religious people who daily turn to the scriptures for inspiration.  I believe they will rebuild no matter what nature and government institutions continue to throw in their direction.

        I think of Sophia Morales when I hear the dreadful stories coming out of Chicago. I continue to hear one group making inroads into the lives of young people in the inner city of Chicago is the Black Church.

        I think of Sophia Morales every time I hear a young person quote the words from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.”  I heard Maya speak once and she said it was not the God of conformity but the God of the Bible, the God of Justice that gave her the voice to speak against the sexual abuse she had received as a child.

        Leaving behind the nights of terror and fear,

                I rise,

        Into a daybreak that is wondrously clear,

                I rise,

        Giving the gifts my ancestors gave,

Into hopes and dreams of the slave,

                I still rise.


        We all should think of Sophia Morales every time we dare to pick up a Bible and read. We should remember the Bible is a book designed for those who are persistent in their search for truth, for justice and for hope. It is a book that often seems ancient, until read persistently, and then we discover something as fresh and inspiring as anything our eyes have ever encountered. It is a book that seems impossible, until read persistently, and then we discover a pathway through the most harrowing mountains. It is a book that seems too rigid, until read persistently, and then we discover the inflexibility was our own unwillingness to consider a message based on mercy, justice and grace.

        Taking the Bible seriously build homes where no home could be imagined.

        Taking the Bible seriously erects hope where hope had been all but forgotten.

        Taking the Bible seriously celebrates justice for those without influence or power.

        Taking the Bible seriously is a dangerous endeavor for the wicked, a foolish endeavor for the lazy and a hopeless endeavor for the satisfied. But here it sits, waiting to be opened, waiting to be read, waiting to be digested, waiting to give inspiration to more than just Sophia Morales.

        I know all of you believe in prayer. I feel it in our joys and concerns every Sunday morning. But I am not so sure all of us have fully encountered the Word of God. I invite you to take a chance. Pick one book and make the pledge to read it slowly and persistently through the next 30 days. I might suggest you start with one of the Gospels. Maybe you prefer the Psalms. Some might want to start with Genesis. I don’t care. I just want you to read slowly and persistently. If you want to talk about what you have read, come by and see me. What have you got to lose? Sophia and others can tell you what you have to gain.       To God be the Glory. Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Gaps and Summits

Lamentations 3:19-26
        During the last month, when conversations concerning my bike ride across North Carolina would come up, the question I was most asked was, “Why?” That is a fair question to which I never gave the real answer. I blamed it on the person who asked me to accompany him. I told one person after all the deaths we had experienced I needed time to reflect. I told another I wanted to get away from the building program for a few days. All those were good answers but not really the whole truth. After all who gives up 7 prime golf days to ride a bicycle 470 miles unless they have a really good reason? So here is the truth. It was all about gaps and summits.
        I suspect when you drive your car to Waynesboro most of you take 151, turn left on 250 and cross the mountain at Rock Fish Gap. And you don’t give it a second thought.  We go that way because years ago someone predetermined this was the easiest way to cross the mountain. We like gaps. They provide the least resistance. As we grow older, we search out gaps to make our lives pleasant.
        Remember when you had to get up off the sofa and walk across the room to change the channel on the TV? Now we have a remote. Remember when the phone would ring and we would have to make a mad dash to kitchen. Now we just reach in our pocket, look at the name of the caller and decide if we have the time to answer it. Think of the 1,000 conveniences we have discovered which make living easier. We live in a lifestyle gap, which seems wonderful. But I have also observed, with fewer obstacles, we have more time to fill our lives with insignificant drama. Then when a real crisis arrives, we panic.
        One of the texts for today comes from the book of Jeremiah. Most of the survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem were hauled off to Babylon. The word from their leaders was, “Don’t worry.” They were only going to be in Babylon a year or two and then the Israelites would be escorted back to Jerusalem. So folks sat in their recliners, picked up their remotes or bought a few extra apps for their cell phones. Then a letter from Jeremiah arrived. The message was devastating. “Folks, you are going to be in Babylon for a long time. It is doubtful any of you will see Jerusalem again. You need to learn a trade, marry off your children, find your faith, and wait for the Lord.” The writer of Lamentations responds to this message by saying, “The thought of my affliction and homelessness destroys me. It cripples my soul.” And then he writes, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. I will move forward as I wait for the salvation of God.”
        Jeremiah knew if folks retreated to their recliners they would lose what little was left of their heritage. They would forget Jerusalem and be satisfied with Babylon. They would replace their faith with the god of the day. They would fail to teach their children about Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham. They would become Babylonians and when the chance to leave appeared, they would stay home because the road to the summit would be too hard.
        At 8:00 last Sunday my friend and I left Banner Elk N.C. with over 1,000 riders. The air was crisp and the road ahead daunting. We began with a climb that was pretty much what I had beeen doing since last March. And then we headed down. There is nothing pleasant about coming off a mountain when the temperature is trying to reach 50. My face, my toes, my very soul was frozen as we headed into the gap of mediocrity. But once we reached it, there was no easy chair to greet us. We started to climb into Boone. This is why I came. I wanted to see if I still had the will to push myself out of my comfort zone. I wanted my lungs to hurt and my legs ache until my only inspiration was my brain shouting the promise that up ahead was the summit and unless I was still  willing to strive for the summit, my life was never going to be fulfilling. We pushed forward, only to discover the climb had not really begun.
After a brief respite at the first rest stop we pressed on. Of the two of us, Bill has always been the stronger rider. On Our first ride across the state 10 years ago he literally pulled me along. I would have quit if he had not been with me.  But this day was different. I know my work on the Skyline Drive had made me stronger but over the past couple years Bill has had developed some heart issues. Each climb literally took his breath away. We would stop while he would lay over the front of his bike searching for air. Then we would continue, until the next hill arrived. At first I was angry. Bill was interrupting my dream. I wanted to rush to the summit and claim the glorious prize that lay ahead. Bill continued to try. I continued to be impatient.  I knew we would never make 60 miles at our pace.  Finally it was evident Bill could go no further. That is when an angel arrived. A woman driving an SUV from Florida was keeping tabs on two guys from Emporia.  God works in mysterious ways. It hardly mattered. A solution was right in front of me. I asked the angel if she would give my friend a ride to the next rest stop. She agreed, Bill and his bike got in the car, and I continued my journey. I pushed forward, rested by the stops, and inspired by my vision, I persevered until I reached the summit. It was 4,000 feet above sea level. I looked out on a magnificence that could only come from the imagination of God. I was elated and yet sad, for I stood by myself. What is the glory of the summit if it is achieved alone?
This is a question that goes much deeper than a bike ride shared by friends. When I was younger, I thought I knew what it took to push myself. But I was wrong. When the top going got tough, I tended to go in another direction. My first years in college were littered with more than one abandoned attempt to the summit. But then I got older, perhaps more mature, certainly more stubborn. I learned both to appreciate the pain and the glory of seeing something through to the end. But there are consequences.
Because of my meticulous journeys toward my particular theological and moral summits, I tend to lack patience with folks who travel a different path. After all, I have been to the mountain top. God has blessed me with authentic answers, at least that is what I keep telling myself. I do know my delusions can make the road to the somewhat lonely. And therein lies the problem.  Must we always walk the solitary road God places in front of us or do we occasionally suspend our goals for the life of a friend? I can make a good theological case for either choice. Jeremiah came to enjoy being a martyr. But I am not sure Jesus relished the same fate.
Perhaps the toughest element of any moral decision is how our words and actions affect the person next to us. Are we the gold standard to which others should aspire or an irritant which never heals? Perhaps we are often both.
I suspect all of us will be searching for some moral high ground over the next month. Like those folks in Babylon, we may discover our hopes and dreams might not be just around the corner. But we are still called to push forward, always striving to challenge ourselves and those on the road with us. Might I suggest you not only keep your eye on the prize but also on those riding beside you. Should they stumble, picking them up may prove more valuable than sprinting ahead. After all, what kind of victory will be achieved if we don’t get there together?                Amen.