Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Mustard Seed

Matthew 13:31-33

        I went to see a movie recently and made the mistake of arriving on time. Silly me, I thought if the movie was scheduled to start at 7:10 it would start at 7:10. Instead I had to endure twenty minutes of previews.  Each was presented as the newest blockbuster, filling the screen with an onslaught of train wrecks, car crashes, and explosions. The dialogue was incredibly pithy with such memorable lines as “Duck!” which makes sense if the central theme is train wrecks, car crashes, and explosions. The sound track practically made my ears bleed. It resembled a marriage of Richard Wagner and Black Sabbath. Why is it movie folks think bigger and louder will convince me to spend another $24.00 on tickets, coke, and popcorn? Truth is, I’m not going back until they start on time, turn down the noise, and put extra butter on my popcorn, even if I don’t ask for it.

        Everything these days seems so over the top.  We don’t converse. We engage in dramatic dialogues attempting to prove that my life is more important than yours.         So what do we do when Jesus opens one of his sermons with the line, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed?”

        Not being the type person who intentionally spends much time in a garden, I had to check with an expert to discover exactly why one would sow mustard seeds. Boy was I surprised.  It seems mustard seeds are so small they can easily be blown away by the wind. But once they take root, they grow like kudzu. It actually is more of a weed than plant. It becomes a parasite choking out the other vegetables in the garden.  That information makes it difficult to understand how one might sell mustard seeds.   Now coming to your local garden, we present the mustard seed. Small to the eye but more powerful to the taste buds than paprika, the mustard seed promises to bring out the dog in your hot dog. But be careful, mustard can leave a stain that last a lifetime.

        Somehow I fear a mustard movie is going straight to cable. No matter how loud the soundtrack, the idea that the kingdom of heaven is like mustard seeds leaves me a little disappointed. Where is the pizzazz? Where are the fireworks? What is so special about a little seed eventually becoming an aggressive bush? It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “The Kingdom of God is hardly what you expect.”     And maybe that’s the problem. In our minds we already have a clear understanding of the Kingdom of God. In fact the only time we get confused is when Jesus speaks.

        What is the Kingdom of God? I spent an endless amount of time this week interviewing any number of folks concerning this very question. Well actually that is not true. Every morning this week from 6:30 to 8:00 I have been painting the outside of my townhouse. As I paint I have been imagining how you might respond to my question. I realize this does not make for a terribly accurate survey but then surveys are notorious for allowing a small sampling to speak for the entire universe. I figure my survey is as accurate as any compiled by CNN or Fox News.

        What is the Kingdom of God? Most folks in my survey substituted the word heaven. One person said, “While I have not been there, I believe it to be a place where everything is perfect.” Another added, “When I get there I am sure I will see my dearly departed loved ones.” My favorite comment was, “I am not sure if the streets are paved with gold, but I am certain there are no potholes.” None of the folks I imagined I interviewed suggested that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed. So why would Jesus suggest this?

        When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God he was not referring to an after death experience. When asked when the Kingdom of God would appear Jesus responded, “The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Jesus referred to the Kingdom as the time when the reign of God would be complete. He admitted this had not fully occurred but it was in the process of happening. Furthermore, Jesus warned when it does happen, it might not be what we expect. Who in their right mind dreams of choking out what one considers being essential as a good thing.

        We prefer our parables interpreted by someone wearing a pair of alligator shoes and a mega-watt smile. Folks like Joel Osteen promise if we believe in the power of God we will never again have to drive a Kia. God will bless us abundantly. God wants us to have that house and that vacation. As Joel would say, “Believe and succeed.”

        The problem is Jesus wears sandals and warns it takes more than mega-watt smile to bring about the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, Jesus is a big fan of Mick Jagger. Late at night the disciples would question Jesus concerning the kingdom of God and Jesus would begin to sing, “You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.”

        So if it’s not a house, a vacation, or new car, what is it that Jesus might think we need?  Perhaps a story told by Desmond TuTu might help. The Archbishop appeared on TV in the early 1980’s when there was no imaginable sign of apartheid ending. He said a curious thing. “When the white people arrived we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes they had the land and we had the Bible. I think we got the better deal.”

        This story and for that matter the parable of the Mustard Seed make no sense whatsoever from a practical point of view. But then that’s one of the many problems we have with Jesus. He is just not all that practical. Jesus enters our world with these words, “Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming, ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand’.” He taught parables and most of them began, “The Kingdom of God is like….”  Yet while Jesus spoke often about the Kingdom, he never once paused to define it. To the farmer or the fisherman the term never needed to be explained. It was part of the frequent vocabulary of every Jew. But for us it remains a strange concept lurking on the fringes of our theological language. What is the Kingdom of God? If you are a bird, it is the mustard bush which will provide your family a nest. If you are a woman trying to feed her family the kingdom of God is the yeast that makes the bread rise.    The Kingdom of God is the extraordinary in the ordinary.

        Last Sunday another Habitat House was occupied by a wonderful woman and her two children. It does not compare with the houses most of us live in but to her it is a palace. Phyllis shared a reading from the 65th chapter of Isaiah during the service of dedication. “I will create a new heaven and a new earth. No longer will an infant live but a day or an old person fail to live out their life. Those who build a house will live in them. Those that plant the seeds will eat of the fruit. You will no longer labor in vain for you shall be blessed by the Lord your God.”

        What is the Kingdom of God? It is the radical hope that people shall live together as one. It is the radical expectation that the word of the Lord is more important than the word of those who prey on others. It is the radical promise that even the wolf and the lamb will come to the same table and not hurt or destroy each other.

        The Kingdom of God does not arrive accompanied by flashing lights, thundering sounds and buttered popcorn. It comes in God’s time and meets us exactly where we are. And how will we know if the Kingdom of God is upon us? Check a mustard seed plant and witness a robin building her nest. Check the garden next to the bush and witness the produce being shared. Check Jefferson Lane in Arrington and witness a new house which has been occupied by someone who helped build it.  Check the hearts of the other folks who helped build both the house and the garden. This is what the kingdom looks is like. It is the world and neighborhood around us when God’s will is done.                                          Amen.         

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Searching for Grace - Part 2

Genesis 28:10-19a


         A line in one of my favorite songs is, “I’ve been searching for grace and grace ain’t so easily found.” Jacob could have written that line. The son of Isaac and the grandson Abraham should have been the son of destiny. He should have had the road paved and the wind at his back. But nothing came easy for Jacob. He was born a moment too late. That minute cost him the privileges that would have naturally been his. He was sixty seconds from being the king. Instead, he was destined to always be a contender.

        Most folks would have been stopped cold by losing the race out of his mother’s womb, but not Jacob. He took destiny into his own hands and by doing so showed a lot of spunk. The misfortune of being born second was not going to stop Jacob from securing what he believed was supposed to be his. No one, not an older brother, and certainly not an aging father were going to keep Jacob from being the head of the family. He schemed and succeeded. The birthright and the blessing were his. All Jacob lacked was a place to lie down and peacefully sleep. But a peaceful rest was the last thing Jacob was about to experience.

        As Jacob lay down, his mind began to churn 1,000 miles an hour. Jacob is not the first person to suffer from insomnia and  I suspect guilt is not the only thing that keeps us awake. Sometimes it is a problem that seems to have no solution. Sometimes it is a relationship that has gone sideways. Sometimes we worry about our children and grandchildren. Sometimes we are perplexed by the unknown. Sometimes we just worry over the complexities of a very complicated world. At night, when there are no chores or games to entertain our imagination, anxiety floods our brain. We are desperate for sleep but no sleep is forthcoming. The next morning we awake but are not refreshed. Jacob was about to have one of those nights.

A favorite poet/singer of mine is Mary Gauthier (pronounced Go-Shay). Her music is so dark you better turn the lights on if you plan to give her a listen. She might have been thinking about Jacob when she wrote,

       When you sell your soul, it opens a deep dark hole;

When you sell your soul, drink will leave you thirsty,

                             And fire will leave you cold.

        Jacob couldn’t sleep because he had sold his soul for a birthright. Everything he desired was his only the birthright  were no good to him because it was as good as 1,000 miles away. The land of his father was his but his brother would kill him if he set foot on it. The wealth of his family was his but that too was now possessed by his brother. The love of his mother was his but he would never see her alive again. Jacob sold his soul and was left with nothing but his dreams and they were turning into nightmares.

        That night Jacob dreamed of a ladder that extended into the heavens. Many of us have been singing about that ladder most of our life. Because of that song we may have lost the meaning of this story. Jacob, conflicted, tired and lonely lay down on the hard ground. With his mind churning, he imagined a ramp opening out of the heavens. Contrary to the words of the song, Jacob had no desire to climb that ladder. Other than his older brother, God was the last entity Jacob desired to meet.

In the culture in which Jacob lived, an encounter with a god was not a healthy experience. When a god appeared, something really bad usually followed. A thunderstorm was understood as the anger of God. A whirlwind depicted the rage of God. Humans were created to be at the disposal of the gods. People believed wars were actually games played by the gods and humans were no more than pawns in these celestial competitions. In the cultures surrounding Israel, specifically Egypt, Babylon and Syria, their gods had little relations with humans and humanity never sought them out. Some of the great stories from those traditions depict the quest of men hiding in a mountain or traversing a great sea in order to escape the gods.

The ladder from heaven meant only one thing for Jacob and that was death. He stared skyward in absolute fear as God descended down the ladder. Jacob had tricked his brother, and deceived his father. He had run away from home and showed hardly any remorse. Can we even imagine what was going on in Jacob’s soul when God Almighty decided it was time for a visit?

        Jacob knew this was going to be his last night on earth. The man who showed no fear in the presence of his warrior brother lay down on the ground and wept like a baby. Then two extraordinary things happened. God spoke, not through fire or frosty wind but with words. Furthermore, the words were not condemnation but rather comfort.

        This story reminds the listener that the God of Abraham, Isaac and now Jacob was not to be compared with the gods of Egypt, Babylon and Syria. The Hebrew people were not pawns to be slaughtered indiscriminately on a giant chess board. Their lives had meaning because each life was sacred and held in high esteem by Yahweh.  True, the God of Sinai had high expectations but this God also cared and protected their wayward souls. Nowhere in the Old Testament tradition is this more obvious that the story of Jacob and the ladder. God descended to Jacob. God was going to have a little talk with Jacob. And unbelievably, God was about to tell this no good wretch of a man that God would watch after him and be with him no matter what.

        This radical concept is one I fear we often take for granted. We hardly think twice about laying our burdens upon the Lord. Then when nothing happens to solve our self-created chaos, our response is to question the very existence of God. The One who understands anguish better than any of us is pushed from our consciousness as we begin to travel a new road……...alone. And that is sad.

         Like Jacob we make the search for grace difficult because we expect to find an elixir that will eliminate all our problems, all our confusion and all our pain. That is not the way grace works. Instead we are promised that in the midst of our problems, in the midst of our confusion, even in the midst of our pain, God will be with us.

        For many of us that is just not enough. We don’t just want a promise. We demand proof. Then when our needs, our desires, even our demands are not met, we walk away claiming we identified the problem and God did not respond.

We need to follow Jacob into the next morning. He got up and discovered there was no great reversal of his fate. Esau and Isaac were still mad enough to kill him. Jacob was not going home, at least not yet.  A dream is seldom enough to annul the pain and anxiety with which we live. But a dream can give us the courage to face the dawn. Jacob went to meet his eventual bride and a father-in-law who was going to twist him like a pretzel. But Jacob found the courage to step forward because he now believed God would never leave him.

Jacob also discovered something else. Just dreaming is never enough. P.J. O’Rourke was remarked, “Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to do the dishes.” Changing the world, or just your small part of it, requires hard work and some serious discipleship. Jacob could have responded to his dream by wishfully thinking God would straighten out all the wrinkles in his life. Instead, anchored by a dream, Jacob endured Laban’s demands. For fourteen years Jacob worked honestly and faithfully. Each day new callous brought Jacob closer to that dream. His faith in himself and God anchored his endeavors until eventually he crossed the river and took his family home.

Peter Marty claims, “Hope is what sustains us when we are not ready to give up on God beaming a light in our darkness or placing life in our weary hands.”

So start dreaming about God coming down a ladder to disrupt your nightmares. Then, sustained by grace, begin the long climb out of whatever hole you’re in.                    Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Jesus Wouldn't Have Made Much of a Farmer

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

        I have admired with great admiration the good work of Nancy Johnson and her merry band of “garden workers”.  If you haven’t been up the hill, it is worth the trip. Last fall they turned over a patch of ground and covered it with straw. Then they built a deer-proof barrier to protect what they hoped would be a summer crop. They prepped the soil, put in an irrigation system, planted seeds, and got ready for the glorious day when they could begin to pull more than weeds. I walk up the hill singing, Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow, Gonna mulch it deep and low, gonna make it furtile ground. Inch by inch, row by row, please bless these seeds we grow, please keep them safe below till the rain comes tumblin’ down.

        Well God did two wonderful things with our garden. First, the seeds were kept safe below. Then nourished by rain and caring hands, the crop has been bountiful. Every Thursday folks at the Senior Citizen lunch receive fresh vegetables. Members of Nancy’s crew also take vegetables to our wood ministry clients. Now our wood and vegetable ministries are serving Nelson County year round.

        But God also assisted our ministry a second way. God didn’t send Jesus up the hill to help with the sowing of the seeds. I am certain before Jesus became a full time preacher he was a wonderful carpenter.   But he obviously knew nothing about gardening.  Who in their right mind throws seeds on rocky soil? And why throw seeds among the weeds? I’ve watched Nancy and her crew. One row is carrots, the next potatoes, then cucumbers, and so on. I saw no random disbursement among the rocks and weeds. In other words, not one seed has been wasted.

        I doubt that would have happened had Jesus pitched in. He just threw seeds everywhere. When folks, many of them farmers, heard the Parable of the Sower, Jesus probably lost some credibility with the crowd.  They were aghast at how much seed Jesus had wasted. Perhaps that is why when Jesus finished the parable he was met with a sea of blank stares. No one understood what he was trying to say. It is like telling your favorite joke and no one laughs.

One of the disciples got up the nerve to speak, “Jesus, I don’t think they got the point of the story.”

Jesus said, “Well explain it to them.”

 The disciple responded, “I didn’t get it either.”

Jesus replied, “It’s an allegory.”

“Oh. What’s an allegory?”

That is when Jesus, the not so accomplished farmer, put on his preaching hat and sort of explained the joke.

As many of you know, a really good story has at least two meanings. One seems pretty obvious. But if you dig deeper a whole new world of understanding emerges. On the surface it appears Jesus is creating a manual for anyone interested in church evangelism. Jesus seems to be saying when you go out into a neighborhood looking for perspective members you are going to run across three types of folk. The first are the newcomers. They have the best of intentions and a lot of enthusiasm. We become captured by their excitement and by their third visit and we have signed them up to teach a Sunday School class, chair a committee, and checked to see if they have a truck for wood ministry. The problem is, by the fifth week they have burned themselves out. We might see them one or two more times but eventually they will either try out a new church or decide reading the Sunday Edition of the New York Times is a more pleasant way to spend Sunday morning.

The second type of folks Jesus warns us about is visionaries. They want to transform the world. They have  been told the church is the place where life changing events take root. The first Sunday they visit, the minister preaches from the Luke 4 text proclaiming Jesus as the one who will, “Bring good news to the poor, bring sight to the blind, and release the captives.”  On hearing the word they have a come to Jesus moment, “blow up their TV, throw away their papers, go to the country, and build a home. Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches and try to find Jesus on their own.” (John Prine). They are deliriously happy until they spend two days without their cell phones. Next they have second thoughts about trading their SUV for bicycles. But the straw that breaks their camel’s back is when they discover apples, not peaches are the cash crop in Nelson County. The weeds in the garden choke their dreams and they admit they were not cut out to be prophets.

Then Jesus introduces prospect number three. They come to our county after spending their entire life in a church. They not only know how to spell Presbyterian, they pray for debtors rather than trespassers. They enjoy going to Sunday School and even own a NRSV Bible. After being here for a year the husband has joined the choir and the wife is being considered for the session. If they are in town they will be in church at least three times a week. They pray for others, show up on work days, and faithfully participate in the Stewardship program. In other words, they will make an excellent church member. They have heard the word, responded and will bear fruit.

The parable seems so simple. Plant your seeds where you know they will grow and the results will overwhelm you. That is what we want to here. Why waste our time of folks that will prove to be a drain on our time. They will only be here for a moment and then they will be off to the next adventure. Even Jesus warned us not to waste our time. But then there is one small problem. Why does the sower keep throwing seeds on the rocks and in the weeds?

My sister is a teacher.  She has two Masters Degrees and an incredible ability to interact with youth and children. Give her a classroom or a floor and magic happens. She teaches Head Start Children. Some might think why would she waste her talents on children that have no chance? Why not teach kids who from birth are headed to college?   Many folks with the tough job of creating budgets would like to see Head Start eliminated because they do not believe the program is cost efficient. My sister would ask how it is possible to you put a monetary figure on the worth of a three year old? She is out there sowing seeds. She loves every child that walks through her door. She doesn’t judge them based on what they could be tomorrow. She loves each child for who they are now. She is relentlessly and indiscriminately throwing seed fervently believing that all soil is potentially good soil. 

My sister understands the real meaning of this parable. You can argue until you are blue in the face that life isn’t fair. You can point out there are folks around every corner just waiting to do us in. Or you can grasp the deeper meaning of the parable and start distributing seeds.

I read last month a person pulled his car into a Macdonald’s and decided to play the “Pay it forward” game. He said to the cashier, “Whatever the person behind me buys I will pay for it.” Imagine the surprise of the person in the next car when she discovered her meal was free. She responded by paying for the person behind her. Amazingly the next 67 customers paid it forward.

Jesus didn’t know a thing about being a farmer. He pretty sure he didn’t purchase the latest books on how to do effective evangelism. The words cost effective never seemed to be part of his vocabulary.  But Jesus loved a good song and I happen to know one of his favorites was,

Inch by inch, row by row,

Please bless these seeds we sow,

Please keep them safe below,

Till God’s reign comes tumblin’ down.



Sunday, July 9, 2017

Lighten Up

Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19

        “To be good, or not be good; is that the question?” Well actually it’s a lot more complicated than that. Usually what it boils down to is how compliant we are with the cultural rules that are place upon us and who enforces this law. Who makes sure that the mores of culture are followed? That is left up to the gatekeepers of each community. And as you very well know, each community has a gatekeeper.

        Most of you are old enough to remember when the church used to be the gatekeeper. Growing up, there were unwritten expectations on our behavior, particularly if it was Sunday. Think of all the things we regularly do now that we dared not engage in when we were growing up in our childhood church. We play golf on Sunday. We play cards on Sunday. We have Spirituality Meetings in a local brewery and our mugs are not empty. What has happened to us!

        Growing up I was a “PK”. Do we have any PK’s here this morning? PK was short for Preacher’s Kid. Being a PK was the kiss of death. Being a PK, when I played sports, it was assumed I was lousy. I never got to hear any of the really good jokes. Most church folks held me to a much higher moral standard than they held themselves. All they had to worry about were Ten Commandments. PK’s had a few added on:

  1. If the church doors are open for anything you must be there thirty minutes early.
  2. Be careful what you say because someone is always listening and you don’t want to embarrass your dad.
  3. Never, ever contradict the word of someone older than you. That is a mortal sin.
  4. If in doubt, remember Paul who said, “Wretched man that I am, I don’t understand my own actions.”

If it sounds like I am ranting you are probably right, but living up to Paul, or perhaps living down to Paul has been a thorn in our side for 2,000 years. Joann Lee writes, “Until recently, the church was not a place that challenged my understanding of myself and my role in the world. If anything, my faith seemed to add regulations, restricting even further what I could do or not do, demanding perfection and adding more pressure. In short, the yoke was not easy and my burden was not light.”

Those of us who were born Presbyterian grew up in a denomination that loved everything about Paul, particularly his concept of total depravity. In order to not fall into the very clutches of hell, we were encouraged to act a particular way, talk a particular way, and pretty much associate with folks who walked and talked the same way. I imagine some of you had a similar church experience.         Perhaps I am being hard on Paul. His job was to change lives. His “go to” story was a conversion along the road to Damascus. Standing in a Greek village Paul would preach, “You are like I used to be. I knew right from wrong but turning to the way of the world was so much easier. Then I meet Christ, or he met me. My life was turned upset down. I was a wretched man saved only by his grace. Join with me. Be born anew. Leave the life you know. Become one with Jesus and be lifted to God’s holy plain.”

We have all heard this sermon. Billy Graham spent a lifetime preaching. It is persuasive. It touches the very core of our beliefs. But it can be a sermon that does more than convert. If we are not careful, it starts us down a road of irreversible conformity. We establish a particular lifestyle and beliefs that distinguishes us from others. Rather than becoming a sanctuary for radical thought, we only attract folks like us. We establish guidelines which keep us from being infiltrated by the sinful world. Eventually we become so rigid, we the church of Jesus Christ forgets who Jesus was. If Jesus were to appear among Christians today his primary message would be, “Why don’t you folks lighten up!”

Using the Revised Andrews Translation, Jesus grumbled, “John came and you complained he acted like a Southern Baptist so you killed him. Now I come, eating and drinking with others and you criticize me for being too much like an Episcopalian. What is your problem?”

The problem is Baptist, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, Evangelicals, and every other member of the Christian faith all claim Christ that happens to look and act just like them . Along the way we lost the real Jesus,  the one who never turned down any dinner invitation.

I suspect Jesus loved to attend the Synagogue on the Sabbath. But he lived the other six days of the week in the margins and dark corners of life. That is where Jesus found people who worried about more than having the correct liturgical color on the communion table. We tell ourselves that Jesus hung out sinners because they needed hope. But maybe he hung out with them because he needed to laugh.

Ever attend a church that forgot how to laugh? Ever visited a church that obviously was never taught a very important reason for worship is finding joy. Jesus went out to dinner with folks who liked to crack open a bottle of wine and tell stories. Then when it was his turn Jesus would say something like, “Did you hear the one who about the man who tried to make the trip from Jerusalem to Jericho all by himself.” And everyone would laugh. Jesus, now smiling, would continue and amazingly each person identified with the traveler. They had been overlooked by a Rabbi. They had been mistreated by a local authority. Each person sitting with Jesus had experienced intuitional angst. Jesus made it a habit of wandering inside their pain of a stranger, or an outsider, and giving them joy. A glass would be lifted and someone would say, “Jesus, tell us another one.”

People tend not to share their lives to a person demanding adherence to cultural regulations. But everyone loves a good story. When the ice is broken, a laugh or two shared, the opportunity for intimacy occurs. A big problem with our society is we laugh AT folks but we have forgotten how to laugh with them. Jesus went among the marginalized not only to save them but  to save himself. What good are our barriers if we are broken? What good is our castle if we are trapped by the moat?

One of my summer jobs when I was in college was to mow the grass above the moat at Fort Monroe. If you have ever been there you know the original fort was protected from bombardment by walls and earthen fortifications.  No one has fired on the fort since the 1860’s but the grass still needs to be cut. The US Army decided the job was too dangerous for a private so they contracted the job out to the guy I worked for. Barry provided the lawn mowers and it took two people per mower to get the job done. The first person pushed the lawn mower along the steep hill. The second person stood on top holding a rope attached to the mower to keep it from falling into the moat.  In other words, the lawn mower was more important than the workers.

Don’t we live in that kind of world? Civility, proper etiquette, law and order, collared golf shirts, or whatever we have that makes us, us, and them, them, have become more important than humanity itself. You know I am right because nobody laughs anymore, except Jesus, who still goes where we dare not venture just to share or hear a story. And when the night grows long and the bottle is empty, Jesus puts his arm around them, and us, and says, “Come, all you that are weary and carrying a heavy burden, and I will give you rest.”

The word of the Lord……………………Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Prophets, Monuments, and Legacies



        Finding common ground in times of turmoil is difficult. Harsh words can be exchanged, alliances broken, and compromises seldom reached. Often both sides retreat and any chance of reconciliation is lost. In two days we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The drafting of this document was no easy task. Three strong personalities, Benjamin Franklin, Richard Henry Lee, and John Adams dominated the conversation. Had Lee’s wife not fallen ill, he might have been the main architect of our beloved document. When Lee returned home, Congress elected Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and the relatively unknown Thomas Jefferson to draft a declaration. During their initial meeting Adams purposed Jefferson write the original draft and the rest is history.

        Historical documents are usually ushered in with greater conflict. It took a war to force John I to sign the Magna Charta. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses led to charges of heresy forcing the monk to leave the Church. Seldom are opposing visions willing to seek compromise. Perhaps the Declaration of Independence was only possible because the second largest ego in Congress, John Adams, stepped aside for what he believed to be the greater good.

        Such a compromise was not reached in this morning’s text. The year was 594.  Jerusalem had been overrun and the first wave of exiles dragged across the desert to Babylon. Judah’s king, Zedekiah brought together the remaining remnant and strategized about the future of Jerusalem.    Two opposing forces sat before him. The first group was represented by the prophet Hananiah. There is much to be admired in this man. His name meant, “God’s grace will save us.”  Hananiah's argued was a great tragedy had befallen Jerusalem. Babylon was a force of evil that had overpowered the capital. He argued, “Empires come and go but God is forever.  The same God who led the Hebrews out of Egypt will strike down the Babylonians allowing Jerusalem to be restored.” Hananiah and his followers urged the king to prepare for the day when the Judeans, led by the righteous hand of God, would destroy Babylon.

        The second group was represented by a solitary voice. Jeremiah stood before Zedekiah and refuted Hananiah. Jeremiah’s words were not pleasant to hear. “It is not Babylon that has enslaved us but Yahweh. We were warned our reliance on power rather than righteousness would lead to destruction. Now you call on the name of the Lord after the city walls have been destroyed. Can’t you see the destruction was from within? God did not leave us. We left God. We must first pay for our disobedience. One day there will be planting and building, but this will not happen until first there is a period of plucking up and tearing down.  Our memories must be refreshed. We must admit our sin and claim God as the Lord of our lives.”

        It was clear to Hananiah that Judah was the victim of a foreign invasion. The necessary response was to undo the harm done by Babylon. Why confess if no sin had been committed? Jeremiah claimed the invasion by Babylon only occurred because Judah had turned from Godly edicts and corrupted itself through its misuse of power and privilege. 

        The king listened to two opposing views.  Jeremiah insisted Judah’s actions and ungodly behavior were the reasons for Judah’s demise. Hananiah responded, “God is on our side. God will punish Babylon. We just have to have the nerve to rise up against them.”

        Hananiah was a faithful believer in the power of Yahweh. He understood God as one who stands up for us regardless of what we have done. He also had an advantage in the argument. Jeremiah’s desire to seek moral high ground was difficult because the first arrow has already been launched. Hananiah won the day. Plans for an attack were put in place. Within a week Jerusalem was destroyed, Hananiah died in battle, and the King was executed. All that is remembered are the fateful words of Jeremiah, “When you sin, there are consequences.”                             (stop)

        While Jefferson is my favorite Virginian, there are two other Virginians I greatly admire. Both lived during a difficult time in our national history. The first is Thomas Jonathan Jackson. You know him as “Stonewall”. But long before he earned this nickname Jackson earned the reputation as a fair but stubborn man. His childhood education hardly qualified him to enter West Point but by his third year he excelled academically. Jackson distinguished himself in the war with Mexico and taught at VMI. He was a Presbyterian deacon and taught a Sunday School class where his favorite subject was the providence of God. He and his sister heatedly discussed slavery. Jackson recognized the flaws of slavery as an institution but used the Bible to defend the right to own slaves. He viewed the Civil War an invasion by the North and referred to himself as a religious crusader fighting to end an act of aggression.

The other is Robert E. Lee.  The son of Light Horse Harry, Robert was a top graduate of West Point and distinguished himself in the US Army for 32 years. In 1856 Lee wrote to his wife, “Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil and only the wisdom of God will determine the end of this evil.”  In 1861 he denounced secession and called it an unconstitutional betrayal of the wishes of Washington and Jefferson. He declared a military conflict would be a “devastating event.” And yet, he felt it his duty to defend Virginia.

Both men believed in the providence of God. Both men engaged in the slavery debate and both saw no future for it as an institution. Jackson argued for it biblically. Lee regretted it morally.  Both defended it on the battle field.

The struggle of Jeremiah and Hananiah in many ways mirrors the dilemma of Jackson and Lee. Jerusalem and Virginia were invaded. Jackson and Hananiah did not deny the existence of sin but saw the invasion as the greater evil.  Jeremiah, and Lee, believed the malignancy of their community led to an inevitable tragedy.  Yet, even in his criticism, Jeremiah remained loyal to Jerusalem. Likewise, even in his realism, Lee remained a Virginian. All four men looked to God for wisdom. Each found different answers.

Why do I share these stories? While Hananiah has been forgotten, we who admire Old Testament prophets have built our theological monuments to Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, and Isaiah. We turn to their example when perplexed by the moral issues of our day. We have also built statues to men like Lee and Jackson.  Some argue they should be removed because of their connection with the institution of slavery. I would suggest Lee, and Jackson, have a story that needs to be told and remembered. Each found themselves in a life and death struggle and sought divine guidance for their response. Both men found biblical evidence to uphold the right to own slaves yet neither championed the institution of slavery. In retrospect, it is easy to see how both were influenced by the flawed theology of misguided preachers. Do we dismiss Lee and Jackson as they defended an ungodly institution? Do we tear down monuments built to honor them? Those are the wrong questions. Shouldn’t we preserve the memories of men and women who struggled with moral dilemmas?  Shouldn’t we honestly examine both their attributes and flaws? As Jesus said, “Can we really know someone until we have walked a mile in their sandals?” The journey will make us be better informed as we engage in choices before us. 

Walter Bruggermann writes, “The great pathology in our culture today is denial. The only antidote is radical truth-telling.” How are we to know who is telling the truth unless we compare it to the difficult and heart wrenching choices made by the good men and woman who came before us? And how are we to make those comparisons if we only remember one side of the discussion.

Next Saturday the Klan is coming to Charlottesville to defend the good names of Jackson and Lee. I stand against everything White Supremacist declare to be holy. They defame God. They defame our nation. They defame the memory Lee and Jackson, two honorable men trying to obey God in difficult times. 

Notice how easy it is for me as a God-fearing crusader to point my finger at this motley crew of misguided malcontents and declare them to be offensive to all things holy.   They are the face of institutional racism, but we are the cause of it. Both Lee and Jackson, searching deep within their souls, began their prayers with the words, “Forgive me Lord, for I have sinned.”    Isn’t this the starting point of any discussion concerning prophets, monuments, and their legacies?  Shouldn’t this be our starting point when discussing the conflicts in our lives?             Amen.