Sunday, May 28, 2017

Between Easter and Pentecost


Acts 1:1-11

 

        A catch phrase often used by someone standing around is, “I’m waiting for Godot.” I have never seen the Samuel Beckett play but I have read it. It is long and tedious, something I can’t imagine anyone watching on stage.

        The play consists of two guys passing the time of day in an unfocused conversation. Much of the time they just sit silently. There is no action, just one long scene, occasionally broken when the two men speak. They have nowhere to go. They suspect life should offer a bit more, but they are not sure. So they wait for Godot to break the monotony of their lives. The play is complicated even further because they have no idea if Godot is actually coming, and if he does, they aren’t sure they will recognize him. So they sit, sometimes in silence, sometimes in awkward conversation, waiting for someone they are not even sure exists.

        The Book of Acts opens with a similar scene. Easter had come and gone. Jesus takes them up a mountain where he ascended into the clouds.  Immediately the questions started. “When is he coming back? What are we to do? Do we stay here and wait? How do we manage without him?” They stood on the hill, looking up, waiting, hardly aware that life was beginning to pass them by.  

        What is it like to wait for God? Are we like those two guys in Beckett’s play? Are we like the disciples with our heads in the clouds? Do we really believe God will make another appearance?

        On a shelf in my office, somewhere between Niebuhr and Tillich, irreverently sits Bertrand Russell. Many folks find the writings of Russell to be as invigorating and challenging as anything presented in the 20th century. He entered the academic world as a mathematician always applying logic to complicated questions. He moved from mathematics to philosophy and still approached life from the perspective of logic. Since reason and common sense often are in conflict with faith, it should surprise no one his most famous essay was titled, “Why I am not a Christian.”

        Bertrand Russell has not convinced me to give up my faith, but he draws conclusions which I am often hard-pressed to refute. Russell claims Christianity has impeded human progress by creating a narrow set of moral parameters which inflict undeserved and unnecessary suffering on the masses. Christians manipulate the general population through fear rather than logic. According to Russell the principal message of the church is believe what we teach or suffer eternal damnation. The result of this rigidity causes Christians to fear progress, fear the mysterious, fear defeat, but most of all, fear death. Bertrand Russell believed Christianity deprived humanity of the joy of pursuing knowledge, kindliness and courage. While I would love to argue with Russell, I  have witnessed far too many churches that  stand frozen in time, and if they do anything it is nothing more than looking toward heaven and repeating, “Come Lord Jesus, Come Lord Jesus.”

        I would like to think that Bertrand Russell would be a bit confused if he visited our congregation. We do not shy away from the power of knowledge. Between our small groups, Sunday School class, Pub Spirituality and the casual conversations which ruin my golf game, this is a very inquisitive and informed congregation. We do not shy away from acts of kindness. Ask anyone who has been ill. Ask the recipients of wood or mittens. Ask the increasing number of folks who receive help with electricity, medication, and rent. Ask the parents of Head Start children. Ask the folks who gather for AA meetings or those that drop by for the counseling services offered by Dwight or the recipients of the music lessons Kathleen provides. Are we courageous? It depends on who you talk to.  We can certainly agitate each other. Sometimes we just sit on our hands. I like to think we are politely vocal. Others of you might want to suggest we are politically inappropriate. The truth is everyone has a line that defines our moral consciousness. For some that line is crossed too often. For others it is not crossed enough. The amazing thing is despite our theological and political differences we get along because we really like each other.

Bertrand Russell would view us suspiciously. He would probably ask, “OK, you might be a nice group of morally motivated folks. But do you actually believe your inspiration comes from some mystical being looking down from the heavens? Are you inspired the resurrection or are you simply gentle folk compelled to do some good things?” Then Bertrand Russell would point his finger and say, “Your preacher seldom ventures beyond the moral clarity of the Old Testament. Your first service choir hates to sing songs using the words blood or cross. Your Sunday School class spends much too much time questioning what the Biblical writers really had on their mind. Your men’s luncheon finds its inspiration in old war stories. The truth is you like each other too much and bicker too little to actually qualify as an average church. So why do you really need Jesus?”

 Which is worse, being paralyzed from looking up, or breaking all the churchy rules and then wondering if you really need God at all?

So here we sit, between Easter and Pentecost. Certainly we understand Easter. A month ago we sang, “Christ has Died, Christ has Risen, Christ will Come Again”, as we hid Easter eggs and stuffed our grandchildren’s baskets with chocolate bunnies. On Monday we returned to our regular routine. We are like most folks. We don’t know what to do with the resurrection. It is so easy for Southern Baptist. They are quite comfortable saying, “Believe in Jesus or you will go to hell.” We don’t even feel comfortable sending folks to Stuart’s Draft.

So some of us wait for God, not sure what to expect. Some of us try to act like Jesus only to discover those are awful big shoes to fill. And most of us try to do a little of both and still come up short.

Beckett got it wrong. We are doing more than just waiting. Bertrand Russell got it wrong. I don’t think we are restricting or condemning free thought. But what exactly is it we are doing? If folks walk through our doors we make every effort to be neighborly. But how intentional are we to invite folks sitting at home to join us on Sunday morning? We have a lot going for us. We are nice people. We have great music. We have two services most of the year. We don’t even require visitors wear a tie. But who are we beyond the obvious? What do we have to offer to someone with a broken heart? What do we offer to someone curious about their faith? What do we offer to a family with children? The only thing that distinguishes us from a gym or social club or even the community center is Jesus.  Why does the mention of that name make us so nervous?

Next week is Pentecost. It’s the day the disciples got their heads out of the clouds and seriously went to work becoming part of God’s story. Do we need to get our heads out of the clouds? Do we need to stop waiting for Jesus? This week, revisit the story of Jesus. Remember why you got so excited in the first place.           To God be the glory. Amen.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Chaos and Creation


Acts 17:22-31

 

        A couple of months ago the folks from OLLI’s Adult Education Program asked if I might be interested in teaching a class. This invitation came in the middle of Lent and the last thing I wanted to do was take on something new. But sometimes ego overcomes common sense and I told them I might be interested. The next day I received a form asking to describe the course I would be teaching. I decided to have some fun and send in a title I was certain would be rejected. I titled my purposed  course, The influence of Babylonian Myths on the Biblical Understanding of Chaos. I submitted the title and went back to worrying about Holy Week.   A few weeks later I received a notice informing me they were excited and was I prepared to teach the course this fall. I share this to not only selfishly promote my class but share an interesting story discovered in my research.   As many of your might remember on Christmas Eve, 1968, Apollo 8 and its three astronauts were circling the moon. As they marveled at the wonders of space, they took turns reading the first chapter of Genesis which begins, “In the beginning God create the heavens and the earth.” Eugene Peterson declared, “They did what a lot of people do spontaneously when they integrate an alert mind with a reverent heart. They worship.” The problem was not everyone was thrilled by this holy moment.

        The first complaint came from Madelyn O’Hair who claimed the space program had been hijacked to advance Christianity. The battle lines were drawn. The defenders of God pulled out their Bibles. The protectors of Darwin brought out their petrified jawbones and stratified rocks. The argument was on and no one was interested in hearing anything the other group had to say. Three astronauts proclaimed amazement at the mysteries of the universe continued a raging argument between scientist and people of faith that officially began the moment Galileo peered into the night sky.  “Is there a God?” “What place does God have in creation? Humans have asked these questions the moment we evolved into a thinking species.

        So what does that have to do with today’s’ scripture? The Apostle Paul, after dazzling folks at off-Broadway stops in Corinth and Philippi decided to try Athens. Athens was considered the intellectual center of the universe. Before Paul arrived,   folks like Plato and Socrates had offered their brand of philosophical wisdom to both suspicious and hungry minds. It is true the Greeks had their temples to Zeus and Apollo, but the philosophers were more interested in exploring the possibilities of the human mind rather than figments of the human imagination.

        But to Paul, God was very real. Growing up in a Jewish household, being taught by biblical scholars and then experiencing the very power of God on the road to Damascus, Paul conquered the hearts of believers and skeptics with his keen mind and sometimes acid tongue. Paul was not to be taken lightly, but when he climbed the steps of the Areopagus, Paul was about to meet his intellectual equals. He knew it was going to take more than a story to convince the minds of folks ruled by science.

        Paul looked at the statues of Zeus and Poseidon. One ruled the heavens, the other the seas.  But beside them was a third statue dedicated to the unknown God. This inspired Paul. This statue suggested there was uncertainty. Zeus and Poseidon might have the hearts of the people, but the Athenians knew the Romans, the Egyptians, the Persians, even the Jews worshipped other gods. Intellectually they refused to limit themselves to only one possibility. This left a door open, which exposed their curiosities. It was here Paul made his frontal assault. “I looked carefully at all the names of adorning the images to your gods. I saw one erected to the unknown god. Today I will tell you of a God too great to be limited to the vision of humans. This God is the Lord of the heaven and earth. Furthermore, this God demands humanity actively pursue righteousness.

        Heads must have spun. Gods were compartmentalized. One controlled the sun and another, the sea. One was in charge of crops and another ruled human emotions. To make it even more confusing, gods actively competed against one another serving as an explanation for chaos and crisis. If the gods were angry, humans suffered. If the gods felt neglected, humans could expect times of draught. What the common folk feared most was an emotional god.

        But the philosophers, the men to whom Paul spoke, privately questioned the existence of such entities. They were raised on Plato. Their favorite story was the fable of the cave where men feared the shadow dancing on the wall, failing to realize the shadows were their own image. Then one day a man stepped outside the cave into the sun light. The philosophers, seeing themselves as the man who had escaped the shadows, imagined an existence beyond mythological chains.

        Paul was aware of all of this. His congregations in Corinth and Philippi were composed of folks fleeing the whims of cultural gods. Now he faced men who wanted to replace those gods with the splendor of the human mind. Paul the intellect understood their desire. But Paul the believer knew beyond the frailty and chaos of the human dilemma resided a life giving power.

        Paul spoke, “I bring to you the God who creates life.” The gods of the Greek culture specialized in chaos. Read the myths. The philosophers of the Greek culture desired to escape that chaos through their intellectual endeavors. Read their writings. Paul stood before them and said, “You are responsible your own chaos. My God is the author of re-creations.” No wonder Paul was rejected. Why take responsibility for our own mess when we can blame someone else, especially if that someone else is a deity.

        The challenge of Paul still rings true today. We are a people who worship multiple gods. The most obvious is the god of consumerism. On high holy days such as Easter and Christmas we used to race to the temples to make our purchases. Today shopping malls are falling into ruin as we discovered on-line shopping.  But our worship continues, as does our chaos, when once a month we send our tithes and offerings to Visa.

        We worship the gods of inexpensive fossil fuels. As an industrial nation we fell for the allure of coal and gasoline despite predictions of what both would do to the air we and creation breathes. Of course the good news is because of global warming water front property on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is going cheap. Who cares your monthly insurance premium might be more than your mortgage.

        We continue to worship Zeus, the god of power and might. We have to. The entire world is turning against us. The walls and IBM missiles we build cannot fight the chaos that resides inside and outside our own borders. Could this chaos be a product of our own making?

        Most assuredly we worship our minds. We are smart enough to realize everyone else is responsible for our chaos. If people would just listen to us the world would be a better place. We don’t need God. We need better communication.

        My job offers a unique position from which to view the human psyche. I am not a psychiatrist or even a professional counselor. I have little to offer, except a very strong belief in a God who creates in the midst of chaos. I see a lot of folks either in my office or the hospital. For many, while God remains a mystery there is a willingness to welcome me into their chaos. We sit; I listen; and then I prayer. I offer no promises of a miracle, only a gentle witness that beyond our fears, beyond our truths, beyond our realities, beyond our flawed vision, beyond our shadows, is God.

I am na├»ve enough to think most folks actually believe this. But regardless what we believe, it is still so HARD TO ADMIT that we are the created and not the CREATOR.                   

To God be the Glory.     Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Martyrdom


Acts 7:55-60

Martyrdom

 

        I am drawn to the Stephen story because many of my heroes were martyrs. Unfortunately most of these folks became my heroes after they died. Such is the fate of most martyrs. I was transitioning from high school to college the year Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed. While I was aware of each man, I can’t honestly say they reached hero status in my heart until after their assassinations. I knew nothing about Steve Biko until I read the story of his life and death. The same could be said of Bishop Oscar Romero. Only in death did he receive international status. When alive, each of these men, with the exception of Kennedy, had a small but loyal following. But in death their story became magnified. The argument could be made that what King, Biko, and Romero, accomplished in death was impossible in life. But their achievements were only possible because of the life they lived.

        The word martyr comes from the Greek word meaning witness. Without the witness of Steven Biko there is no Mandela. Without the witness of Oscar Romero I would argue there would be no Pope Francis. In death, their witness was amplified, allowing their cause to be understood on an entirely different level.

        This morning we read of the martyrdom of Stephen. Who was this guy? That is a question to which there is no answer.  We know nothing about his family or background. The book of Acts mentions that he was waiting on tables within the Christian community. For some reason he was picked out by a group of Jews who claimed he was slandering the name of Moses. This gave Stephen ample opportunity to share his faith and witness to the greater community. I invite you to read Acts 6&7 this afternoon. I am not sure if the writer of Luke placed these words on the lips of Stephen or if they were his. It hardly matters. In a polemical study of Biblical history, Stephen claimed his adversaries did not understand the path from the liberation from Egypt to the death of Jesus was orchestrated by God. It was his accusers who were slandering the name of Moses. This indictment was not taken kindly. It sealed his fate. An angry mob dragged Stephen outside the gates of the Holy City and stoned him to death. He was the first to officially die for Christ. He would not be the last. But that is all ancient history.  If I preached a sermon suggesting we become martyrs for Christ, it would fall on deaf ears. We polite, civil, mentally balanced believers aren’t going to drink the Kool-Aid. So what if I asked you to be a witness?

        The idea of being a witness is not prevalent in main-line Denominations. We have our martyrs, usually missionaries, who died in some foreign country. But if I were to say, “Can I get a witness?” from this pulpit, most of you would look at me as if I had lost my marbles.  Perhaps the closest thing we have to “Giving Witness” happens during joys and concerns. We share good news. We offer prayers for those who are going through difficult times. Then ever so often someone stands and gives witness. When this happens I begin to squirm internally and wonder if church is the proper place to raise such concerns.   Then I wonder how many churches in Nelson County regularly share concerns for refugees, the poor next door, Palestinians and Israelites, our President and the Presidents of other countries, drones, nuclear weapons in N. Korea, violence in our society, and the response to this violence. Those requests get under our skin.  We sometimes feel they are disrupting our worship. Perhaps another time would be more appropriate. But then again, when is it ever proper to exclude God from our conversations? And so we hear the witness, we squirm, often wishing their voice had remained silent.

        What was the witness of Stephen? It wasn’t the sermon. That was the reason everyone got upset. That was what led his stoning. But the witness of Stephen was expressed in his final words, “Father, forgive them.” You have to believe someone who had thrown a stone was stunned by those last words. You have to believe someone took those words home with them. You have to believe Saul, who was holding the coats of the stone throwers, never forgot those words. Perhaps later Paul shared those words with fellow Christians as they were sitting around a church home sharing joys and concerns. A witness stays with us.

        I mentioned one of my heroes was Oscar Romero. Allow me to share his story in case the name has escaped you. Romero was a priest in El Salvador. He seemed to have the gift of side stepping any difficult situation. This was fortunate because El Salvador was a dangerous place to live in the 70’s and 80’s. There was constant fighting between the government, the drug lords, the peasants and the aristocrats. Every group, except the peasants, used local henchmen to protect their investments. The position of Archbishop became open in San Salvador. The Cardinals in Rome wanted someone with an ear sympathetic to the government and the aristocrats rather than the local priests who lived among the local population. Romero seemed to be the obvious choice.

        He took office and became intent on keeping his head low. He made sure the bills were paid and baptized all the children of the aristocracy. Then one day he was approached by a priest who asked him to visit the barrio. Reluctantly Romero agreed. During that visit he observed the backbone of his church. On returning to San Salvador he announced he was leaving the safety of his house and would live among the people. Romero spent the last couple of years of his life living with and listening to the poor. This is what got him killed. But that was not his witness. In March of 1980, Romero was celebrating the Easter Mass when members of the militia broke into the back of the church. Knowing they had come for him, Oscar Romero took the bread from the table, stretched out his arms and said, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” Those were his last words.

        We are a people of a sacred witness. The word of the Lord has always been holy. To do so our voices must become confessional, sermonic, poetic, and sometimes even political. It is this witness which calls our community to be accountable and responsible in the eyes of God.

        In early April of 1945, just before Deitrich Bonhoffer was executed for crimes against the German State he wrote,        Dare to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you. Freedom comes through word and deed, not just thoughts taking flight. Faint not nor fear, but go into the storm and the action, trusting God whose commandments you faithfully follow. Freedom exultant will welcome you spirit with joy.

        I believe that is what Stephen and Martin and Robert and Steve and Oscar did.

So I ask again, “Can I get a witness?”              Amen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Lord is my Shepherd


Psalm 23



 

        “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  How many times have you uttered those words?  Back when memorization was all the rage the 23rd Psalm fell from our lips as easily as rain from a heavy sky.  Just out of curiosity, raise your hand if you know the 23rd Psalm from memory.  That is what I suspected.  When I meet with a family during funeral preparations this Psalm is almost always requested.  It offers a poignant hope to those who grieve.   But the poem is more than a reflection on death.  It is an affirmation of life.  Think about how many songs you know that are based on this Psalm. Our days, no matter if it is sunrise or sunset, are enriched by the timeless words of the Shepherd King.

        “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  The Psalm begins with the most improbable metaphor.  It would seem David is saying, “Because the Lord rules my life, I desire nothing.”  I realize we live in a world consumed with always having the next biggest thing and we could all temper our appetites, but are ambition, drive, or desire so horrible?   I am 66 years old. Soon I will go to the golf course with the ridiculous desire to shoot my age and count more than just my score on the front nine.  Is it bad to be motivated?  Is it wrong to want good health for our families?  Is it so horrible to want to succeed at our jobs, or work at being good neighbors, or excel at any project we might undertake?  Of course not.  We misinterpret the Psalm if we believe this was David’s intention.  After all, David was a pretty ambitious guy.

Sometimes it is helpful to return to the original language to clarify the intended words of the author.  A more exact translation might be, “Yahweh is my Shepherd; I lack nothing”.   Think for a moment about all the powers and influences that are competing for your heart and soul.  We all have them.  My Achilles heel is book stores.    When Barnes and Nobles added a music section to their merchandise I thought I had truly experienced Shangri-La.     Barnes and Nobles holds all the keys to life.  You want be the master of your universe, lose fifty pounds, work at home, learn any foreign language, develop self-esteem, buy a house, sell a house, or take over the housing industry? Everything you need to know, anything you desire to conquer, any philosophy you crave to follow is right there on the shelves of Barnes and Noble.  And that is only in the best selling For Dummies Book Series.  There are thousands upon thousands of works of wisdom and truth that I have yet to explore.  And yet David, the shepherd of his people, the master of his universe, defines his own frailty and strength in those seven eternal words, “Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”   David’s opening line in this unforgettable Psalm strikes a spiritual chord reminding us that God is faithful; God is alive; and God never reneges on a promise.  Our shepherd fills our hearts with hope and our souls with promise.  Under God’s guidance we lack for nothing.  Under God’s grace we bath in all we need to be whole.

We never lack for spiritual peace because “God restores our soul.”    Ever hear Eva Cassidy sing, “Fields of Gold”?  Sometimes I will come home after a very difficult day and all I desire is calm. I sit in my chair, close my eyes and listen to the voice of an angel becoming a substitute for any preconceived crisis.  When the song ends, the hole in my heart has somehow been mysteriously healed by the wonder of Eva’s voice.  I imagine each of you share a song, a picture, a memory that God has placed in your soul that stills your troubled waters.  Some folks insist that God never gives us more than we can handle.  I don’t believe that.  I have witnessed too much tragedy.  But I believe that God never deserts us in difficult times.  God restores our soul, giving us the courage and confidence to take that next step.

We never lack for direction because “God leads us in paths of righteousness.”  Yogi Berra is better remembered for his “yogi-isms” than for his Hall of Fame career with the New York Yankees.  One of his best known sayings is, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  That statement hardly makes sense unless you know where Yogi and his wife have lived.  The Berra home is half way around a circle.  When you are approaching the road leading to the Berra homestead, it doesn’t matter if you go right or left. Both roads lead to Yogi’s house.  Folks often talk about the straight and narrow road of the Lord.  I find God’s navigation system is much more complex than we might initially realize.  I suspect God has led me down roads some of you would not dare travel.  I know some of the ways you have discovered God would be foreign to me.  When I compare faith journeys with other ministers, one might wonder how we found our way to a similar destination.  We definitely took different forks.  But our roads have always led to God’s righteousness.  The most wonderful part is the more I travel life’s road, the more I witness God’s mysterious and amazing grace.  No matter the occasional pothole, no matter the momentary feeling of uncertainty, I have no desire to turn around and go back.  Sometimes I only understand the reason for the trip once I arrive.  And that in itself causes me to trust God all the more.

We never lack for courage because “Even through the darkest valley, we will not fear, for God is with us.”  I have to admit that David was a lot braver than I.  Maybe after that Goliath incident, David was able to take courage to a level not easily understood. It is healthy to acknowledge and respect fear.  It is equally important not to allow fear to paralyze our steps.  Many of you have experienced surgery.  Think of the fear that crept into your stomach as the anesthesiologist asked you to count backwards from one hundred.  Many of you have lost a spouse.  Think of the emptiness that swept over you a day or so after the funeral when all the children and friends had returned to their homes.  Some of you have lost jobs or been faced with a difficult career changing decision.   Think of the emptiness you felt as you wondered what the next day would bring.  The valley of the shadow of death is not a once in a lifetime experience.  Fear is not just an occasional emotion.  Neither is God an occasional friend.  God doesn’t just drop by ever so often to see how we are doing.  God directs us to the best and smoothest pebble.  God steadies our aim and empowers our arm.  When we face our personal Goliath, we are not alone.  As the 139th Psalm reminds us, “When darkness covers me and the light becomes night, even the darkness is not dark to you.  With your presence, the night becomes as bright as day.”  So often fear knocks and God tells us to go ahead and open the door.  The surprise comes when we open the door and nothing is there.

We never lack for hospitality because “God prepared a table before us in the midst of us enemies.”    There is a Zen proverb about a warrior who was captured by his enemies and thrown into prison.  That night he could not sleep.  The warrior was convinced that he would be tortured the next day.  The words of his teacher came to mind. “Tomorrow is not real.  The only reality is now”.  The warrior came to the present and fell asleep. 

I discovered this story a few years ago when I was reading about a Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian missionary who was kidnapped in Lebanon.  He remained their prisoner for 16 months.  Asked how he survived, the missionary told the Zen story and then added the words, “a table was prepared for me in the midst of my enemies.”  When Weir’s captors would bring him food, the missionary was convinced each meal would be his last.  But then a month into the ordeal he decided not to worry about tomorrow but live in God’s moment. From that time on, when the food was brought, the missionary would ask the captors if they would break bread with him.  Initially his offer was rejected.  But each day Weir made a similar request.  Eventually they ate together, prayed together and finally shared stories of their families.  When Benjamin Weir was released, he claimed he was alive because he was able to break bread with his enemy. 

Finally we will never lack for a future because, “We will dwell in the house of the Lord for as long as we live”.  Choosing to live on this side of the resurrection becomes more than just a recipe for life.  It offers us an everlasting existence with God. 

The Lamb is our shepherd, we lack nothing.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all our days.  Even in the midst of enemies we shall find the courage to choose life, and God, for as long as we shall live.   Is it any wonder this Psalm remains on our lips? Will you join me as we turn to page 473 in our hymnal and sing the Shepherd song once again?