Sunday, September 24, 2017

Giving Thanks

Exodus 16:2-15

        None us need Mac Davis to remind us that memories are tucked between the corners of our mind.      Memories occupy a special place in our soul.  Memories, like the smell of a fresh cut rose lingers in our mind, reminding us of another time and place.  Some memories come with a degree of pain as we recall a moment of bitterness.  The best memories offer the promise of a new day.  Some hark back to the sage who reminds us that the darkest moments often come just before the dawn.  It is these memories that sustain us and give us hope.
        Faith is built on memories.  The Exodus story a reminder, to both Jews and Christians alike, that while Pharaoh can come in all shapes and sizes, in the end, it is God who stands tall in the midst of adversity.
        A favorite memory from the Exodus tradition is the story of manna from heaven.  The slaves crossed into the wilderness and declared themselves free from Egyptian tyranny.  Immediately they discovered being free isn’t everything they had imagined.  In Egypt, where they were shackled, they also knew breakfast would be on the table.  In the wilderness, their food was running out and with it their reliance on God.  All that had left was their voice and my, oh my, did they complain.  They screamed at Moses, “Did you and your God lead us out here into the wilderness just so we would die?”  I am always amazed how quickly the Hebrews were ready to pack up the promise of freedom for the security of being a slave.  At each turn in the road they would complain.  The majority wanted to go back to Egypt.  I think if they could have figured out how to re-cross the Red Sea many would have.  But there was no turning back.  They had to learn the hard way that when God makes a promise, God fulfills that promise.
        The Israelites were instructed each morning, just after the sun rose, the desert would sparkle with breakfast.  Each person was to gather just enough “manna” to last one day.  If they gathered too much, the leftovers would spoil.  If they gathered it too late the sun would ruin it.  If they didn’t gather it, they would go hungry.  It wasn’t a great meal.  It certainly lacked in variety.  But it was enough to sustain folks until the next sunrise.  They might not have gotten what they wanted, but they certainly got what they needed.
        This story remains burned in the memories of the Hebrew people.  The message, “God will provide”, was too simple to ever be forgotten. Can you think of a time when God has not provided?  Oh maybe it wasn’t exactly what we wanted, but looking back, can you think of a time when God’s gifts have been lacking.  The truth is we take the gifts of God for granted every day.
        I had eggs for breakfast yesterday.  Amazingly, I did not have to go out to the barn and retrieve them.  In fact if memory serves me right those eggs found their way to my house over a week ago and they were still fresh.  Can you imagine what my great grandparents would have given for fresh eggs and milk any morning they so desired them? 
Before I left the house this morning, I checked my weather app to see what kind of day it was going to be.  We have had four hurricanes blow our way in the past month. As deadly as they have been can you imagine what it would be like to not to know a hurricane was coming.  Hurricane Harvey wrecked havoc upon the Texas coast. But everyone was warned to leave days in advance.  100 years ago 5,000 folks died in Galveston because no one knew the storm was coming.
Now you can say that refrigeration and apps on a phone are created by the inventiveness of the human mind.  Or you might give credit where credit is due and believe that God gave us the ability to think.  Every day I am amazed at the gifts of God that I just take for granted.  Every step of my life, every triumph, every tragedy, every non-descript day, God has walked beside me, patted me on the back and lifted me up when necessary.
Of course too often we play the role of the confused Israelites in the desert.    When things go bad, if the gas prices are high, if the stock market takes a plunge, we throw up our hands and scream to whoever might care to hear, “How could this happen?  This is the worst day of my life.  Send me back to Egypt so I can die as a slave.  Where are you God when I need you?”  And ironically, we still have eggs in the refrigerator, and I can still check out the weather on my app.
Think back for a moment.  What was the worst day of your life?  Perhaps a family member was diagnosed with a grave illness.  Perhaps you lost a job. Perhaps it was 9-11.  During that event, where was God?
What was the best day of your life?  Perhaps it was a marriage or the birth of a child?  Perhaps it was when your child achieved something remarkable?  Perhaps it is anytime you wake up and don’t find your name in the obituary?  Where was God?
Sometimes the presence of God is not apparent until days or maybe even years later.  At times of birth, we are so busy counting toes we forget who is the author of life.  At times of bereavement we are so busy drying tears we forget who conquered death.  In times of crisis, we forget God has seen and responded to every crisis known to humankind.
Whether you are in the wilderness waiting for manna or in the midst of a confusing day waiting for relief, God is there, waiting to be acknowledged, waiting to be heard, and waiting to see if we will respond to God’s holy truth.
Each day we dare to wake up can become a memory validating that God is good.
Each day we dare to get out of bed can became a confirmation that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Every day we eat breakfast is an affirmation that God may not supply what we want but we do receive what we need.
Memories are not just tucked between the corners of our mind. Memories are the foundation of our faith. Each of us has experienced a miracle. Each of us has received a little manna. Think of the abundance of God’s grace and mercy in your life. Then give thanks. For God is good.  God’s mercy is everlasting.                  To God be the glory.  Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Who is your Pharaoh?

Montreal Baptist Church

“Who is your Pharaoh?”


        Good Afternoon.

        It is an honor to be standing in the pulpit of James Rose. This is such holy ground I should take off my shoes. No one is more highly respected in this county than your minister. His voice is heard at Commission meetings. His prayers are heard at the Sheriff’s office. He walks the halls of our schools. If you are sick, he is there. If you are discouraged, he is there. If you need a friend, he is there. To count James as a friend does not make me unique, for James is a friend to every person in Nelson County. But it does make me blest.  Thank you, my friend, for inviting me to stand in your pulpit. Thank you for inviting some members of the Rockfish Choir to sing to God and your folks.   We are here to serve you through our music, through our words, and through our prayers.

Will you pray with me.

Lord we have come to this holy place,

to be among holy people,

who thrive on Your Holy Word. 

        Touch my heart,

that I might be open to your spirit.

        Touch my lips,

                That Your spirit might find amplification.

        Touch my soul,

                That I might understand the difference between,

                        Your truths and my diversions.

                In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

What a joy it is to be here… the middle of the afternoon….. after many of us have been in church all morning…. And after all of us have consumed a mid-day meal.  Many of us would prefer to be snoozing in our easy chair pretending to watch football. But thank God for the women. They got us to church this morning. They fixed the meal at noon. And they told us if we came to church this afternoon we could snooze along with everyone else because some white guy is bringing the message. Well I am here to tell you it is worse than that. This white guy is Presbyterian. Let’s be honest. When James told you a Presbyterian was going to be preaching at your revival didn’t your heart sort of sink? Didn’t you turn to your husband and whisper, “Reverend Rose must have been out in the sun too long.” Whoever heard of a Presbyterian preaching at a revival? In the Presbyterian Church if you say “Amen”, folks think the service is over and we go home.  If you say “Thank You Jesus” or “Praise God” the elders will give you directions to the nearest Baptist Church.  So I can understand why you might be a little nervous about what’s happening next. Let me assure of one thing.  I don’t preach long. So no matter how painful the experience, it will be quick.  Can I hear an Amen from the choir?

The scripture I have chosen comes from the last three verses of the second chapter of Exodus. “After a long time the King of Egypt died. Another Pharaoh took his place. The children of Israel became slaves and they groaned under Pharaoh’s rule. Their cry for help rose up to God and God remembered the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  

The title of this sermon is, “Who is your Pharaoh?”

As I confessed, I know very little about Revivals. But I have seen people revived.   I spend a lot of time in hospitals. I have witnessed the miracle of a heart being revived when everyone had given up hope. I spend a lot of time doing counseling. I have sat with folks struggling with their marriage. I have witnessed lives revived when it seemed all was lost. I spend a lot of time with folks floundering with this thing we call faith. Sometimes the idea of God seems more than we can imagine. And then miraculously there is a spiritual transformation. Some folks call that born again. Presbyterians like to say we are revived to remember who we always have been, A Child of God.

The children of Israel needed to be revived. You know the story. Joseph made his brothers mad and so they sold him to slavers headed for Egypt. He could have become complacent and given up but Joseph remembered he was a child of God. He was bought by Potipher and won the confidence of his master. He also attracted the eye of Potipher’s wife. Joseph should have feared his master wife even to the point of giving in to her desires but he refused because, he was a child of God. Being a man of integrity got Joseph thrown into prison. He was shackled but not broken. He began to interpret dreams and his gift was noticed. Eventually Joseph was brought before Pharaoh and put in charge of preparing Egyptians for the drought Joseph had predicted. Joseph fought complacency. Joseph rejected fear. Joseph refused to be broken by slavery because he never forgot who he was.

As Joseph predicted, a drought came across the land. Thanks to the foresight of Joseph, the storehouses of Egypt were full. People from near and far came to barter for food. Then one day, the folks needing assistance were the brothers of Joseph. Joseph could have had them killed on the spot, but he didn’t. Joseph remembered who he was. In an act of compassion few can understand, he embraced those who had enslaved him and welcomed his family to Egypt. But not even Joseph, with all his ability to see into the future could imagine what would happen next.

Pharaoh died. Joseph lost his meal ticket. The next Pharaoh did not know Joseph. The descendents of Joseph should have jumped up and headed home. They should have known they were strangers in a strange land. But they had forgotten the stories of Abraham. They had forgotten they were a chosen people. They had even forgotten they were the children of God. They weren’t happy being in Egypt.  They were just to complacent to leave.

Ever suffer from the disease of complacency. You become satisfied with who you are. Oh you used to have dreams, but they have been forgotten. You used to have an appetite but now everything taste the same.  You used to see the sunrise as the opportunity for a new adventure but now you barely have the energy to get out of bed. You go about your business. You don’t even care that at the end of the day Pharaoh pays you less than your worth. That’s what happened to the children of Israel. They got comfortable living in Egypt. They let someone else do their dreaming. And Pharaoh watched, and Pharaoh smiled, because Pharaoh depends on us becoming complacent.

Then fear set in. Word began to circulate in the Israelite camp that Pharaoh was not happy. The production of bricks was less than satisfactory. The number of mouths that needed to be fed was cutting into Pharaoh’s profits. What good were these Hebrews if they couldn’t meet the Egyptian’s requirements? See the subtle change that has taken place. When Joseph and his brothers came to Egypt they were known as the children of Israel which means, “Willing to struggle with God.” Now they called themselves Hebrews which translates as, “From the other side of the water.” They had gone from a people defined by faith to a people longing for a place they couldn’t even imagine. They might have wanted to leave but to do so would mean crossing the water. If you are afraid, you don’t venture out. If you are afraid, you become satisfied. If you are afraid, you allow yourself to become enslaved. Pharaoh has no power unless we give it to him, and that was exactly what the Hebrews, the people from the other side of the water, did. They enslaved themselves to a new master.

Complacency leads to fear. Fear leads to enslavement. Enslavement leads to hopelessness and hopelessness is a very real sign of a people who have lost their memory. The Hebrew people had no idea who they were. No one could remember what was on the other side of the water. No one could remember Yahweh. They cried out into the darkness because they had lost sight of the light. They cried out because they had forgotten how to do anything else. Complacent folks don’t have a plan, just a complaint. Fearful people have pain and barely any hope. Enslaved people redefine the very definition of life. That is what living under the thumb of Pharaoh can do. We cry out, never thinking anyone will hear. We cry out, oblivious to the memories we have lost. We still cry out, never expecting that someone across river might hear our voice. We cry out because we have forgotten our name, Child of God.

Now don’t think the Hebrew people did anything to deserve God’s grace. Truth is they forgotten God. They cried out in the darkness never expecting a reply.  They knew Pharaoh had won. And they were right.

Pharaoh loves complacency. When we give up; when we blame everyone else; when we won’t even try; Pharaoh wins.

Pharaoh thrives on fear. When we are so afraid to change our ways because we are fear losing what we don’t even have, Pharaoh wins.

Pharaoh depends on us giving up. When we feel enslaved by life, when we feel everything is stacked against us, when we feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, Pharaoh wins. 

Pharaoh is happiest when we are a complacent, fearful, enslaved, and a quiet people. Pharaoh knows when we voice our complaint, we are still alive. Pharaoh knows when we lift our voice, somebody might be listening.

So let’s return to my favorite part of our scripture. Imagine God sitting way off in the corner of the universe playing poker with the angels. God picked up his cards and glances down at an Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten, all hearts. God coolly lay the hand face down on the table, picks up a cold bottle of his favorite adult beverage and takes a long drink. Then God checks out the faces of each angel and slyly smiles.  The chips began to grow in the middle of the table as each participant believes they possess the winning hand. God get’s ready to push all his chips in when a distant cry comes to his attention. God flips his cards to the middle of the table and declares, “I need to fold. My people need me.”

What kind of God relinquishes a winning hand to rescue a lost cause? A God who remembers.

The Hebrew people had forgotten that Abraham came out of retirement to risk everything on the promise of having a son. They forgot there was nothing complacent about that old man. But God remembered.

The Hebrew people had forgotten that when Isaac saw the knife above his heart as he lay on the altar, he never wavered.  The Hebrews forgot there was no fear in that young man. But God remembered.

The Hebrew people had forgotten that even though Jacob was born second, he would not relinquish his fate to cultural expectations. They forgot no one was going to enslave that rebel. But God remembered.

God remembered the deal made with Abraham. I will be your God and you will be my people. God remembered the birth of Isaac, sealing the deal. God remembered wrestling with Jacob and renaming him Israel because the rebel was willing to struggle with God.

Imagine worshipping a God with that kind of memory. It creates all kind of problems. A God with a memory knows us better than we know ourselves. A God with a memory isn’t likely to listen to a lot of excuses. A God with a memory is liable to look us straight in the heart and ask, “Who is your Pharaoh?   Who drives you into complacency? Who puts fear into your heart? Who shackles your dreams?”

  I wonder who Joseph saw when he looked into a mirror.  Did he see the boy thrown into the pit or a man who controlled his destiny? Did he see a slave who lost his identity or man who knew he was a child of God?

Who do you see when you look into a mirror? Do you see someone walking in the light or do you see someone broken down by Pharaoh’s whips? Do you see someone who thrives on God’s word or someone who struggles to even remember the holy promise? Don’t be ashamed to admit who you are. Pharaoh can wear you out. Pharaoh wants to leave you without hope. But Pharaoh can never quiet your voice.

If you look in that mirror and don’t like who you see, get down on your knees and pray, “Jesus, have mercy.”

If you look in that mirror and you are overcome by fear, cry out, “Jesus, still the storm in my life.”

If you look in that mirror and can’t remember who God intended you to be, scream until your lungs bleed.   

WHY, because you are a child of the living God. Despite having the winning hand, despite all the chips laying there for the taking, once God hears your voice, God will still stand up say, “Boys, I’ve got to fold. Someone needs me.”

Listen to the good news in this morning’s scripture.

Despite our complacency, God comes to us.

Despite our fears, God comes to us.

Despite our chains, God comes to us,

Because we are children of the living God.

Remember that!

Remember That!


                And be revived!            Amen.

Remembering 9/11

       Exodus 14:19-31


        Monday, as I sat down to look at the lectionary text, the fact that it was September 11 probably forced my eyes and heart to give the Exodus passage greater significance. I still remember the tragic image that captivated our collective memories. I am sure most of us distinctly remember what we were doing that September morning. The day before, I had flown into Raleigh. Deb and I were living in Texas when I received   word that a dear friend and colleague in Wilmington N.C. had died. His wife wanted me to perform the funeral. I used this as a chance to see my mother and father who lived in Morehead. The morning of the 11th I drove my car from Morehead to Wilmington on a back road through Camp Lejeune. Not knowing what was happening, I was somewhat alarmed at the activity by MP’s and security police. I was basically given a personal escort off the base. I turned on my radio and the reports I received seemed like something out of a HG Wells novel. Once I got into Wilmington I was stunned to find the streets deserted. I pulled into a Dick’s Sporting Goods store and witnessed what the whole world was watching. Over and over again we saw the replay of the first plane hitting the Trade Center. And then live I witnessed in disbelief as the second plane appeared. The sky was a cloud of fire and smoke.  Below, those who survived were frantically running for safety with no idea what the next moment might bring.  This image is burned into our collective consciousness. But there was a third horrific memory.  That evening, I drove back to Morehead and watched TV. There were brief flashes of reactions around the world. One was a picture of folks dancing for joy as the cloud of fire and smoke briefly reigned supreme over the broken hearts and psyche of our nation. I thought to myself, “How could they rejoice?”

I remember the weeks that followed.  That next Sunday the pews of my church were filled to capacity. People who rarely showed up on Christmas and Easter were there that Sunday Morning. Some even came the following week. Some showed came to pray. Some came hoping for a word of hope. Some probably came because they didn’t know where else to go.

        Now it is so many years later.  Much has changed.  Perhaps our innocence has been stripped.  Perhaps our hearts have been hardened. Perhaps we have been driven by a long season of revenge.  Perhaps we don’t even like remembering because those memories are painful, and on going, and have reached no sense of closure.  Those folks that filled our pews for a week or two have gone. Their reaction was as much one of fear and confusion as anything else. Maybe they just they didn’t know where else to go. Maybe they were looking for answers and found none. Sometimes the church doesn’t have answers, only stories.

Our Old Testament text this morning is about a pillar of fire and smoke.   Many of us learned the story as children. The Hebrew people, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had gone to Egypt to survive a draught. Then they made the mistake of staying. Eventually the Pharaoh who knew Joseph died and the welcome mat was rescinded. Southerners have a great saying about visiting. Never stay more than three days. That is when fish and guest begin to smell. The Hebrew people not only extended their welcome, they began to smell. Since they wouldn’t leave, Pharaoh put them to work. Eventually the relationship resembled slavery. The Hebrew people become so immersed in Egyptian culture they forgot their past and their God. In their misery they cried out to anyone who would listen. Their cries caught the ear of Yahweh and the God of Abraham responded by sending Moses. After numerous conversations with Pharaoh, the scene was set for the Hebrews to leave Egypt. They fled east toward the Promised Land only to discover there was a body of water standing in their way. They looked at the water, then looked back at the cloud of smoke approaching. Everyone knew the dust was the chariots of Egyptian Army. No one doubted their mission was to destroy the Hebrew people. The Hebrews turned to Moses and cried out, “Why did you bring us out here to die?” Moses responded by saying, “You are a people of life not death.” He lifted his shaft and a great cloud of smoke and fire separated the children of Israel from the armies of Pharaoh.  Then the waters began to part and the Hebrews made their way through the danger to solid ground. In all the smoke the Egyptians could not see what was happening. They followed the Israelites into the water and as you know, that was their undoing. As the Israelites were taking their first step toward a new life, the waters rescinded destroying every member of the Egyptian army.  That night the lifeless bodies of the Egyptians washed up on the shore.   This is the oldest story of the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is the story that was told throughout the history of Israel.  When the Jews were in Babylon the story was remembered.  When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, the story was remembered.  In the death camps of Auschwitz the song faithfully sung was, “Sing to the Lord for God has triumphed graciously, the horse and the rider God has thrown into the sea.” When we remember 9/11 don’t our hearts burn with a desire for God to once again to stir up the waters against those who are our enemies?

        Sometimes we want God to be judge, jury and prosecuting attorney. Sometimes we want a God who strikes vengeance on those we consider to be our enemy. We want a clear and concise action to justify Christians marching forth to war. God is not controlled by our emotions.  Within the utter mystery of the fire and the smoke that separates the Israelites from the Egyptians is an unpredictable God.  As we continue to read the stories of the Old and New Testament we discover this is not a God who is endlessly biased toward one people at the expense of another, but a God who is steadfastly preoccupied with a gracious horizon that we cannot comprehend. This is the God who insists we forgive our enemies not once, not twice but seventy times seven. How does one reconcile the slaughter at the Red Sea and this extraordinary proclamation by Jesus? I can only declare God is, quite simply, bigger than us and bigger than our agendas.

        As I struggled mightily with the Red Sea story and the images of September 11, I remembered an ancient story from the Hebrew tradition that has accompanied the Exodus text.  According to a rabbi, the angels were singing and dancing over the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea. One of the angels noticed that God had not joined their celebration.  “Look”, he said, “The Lord, the Creator of the Universe is sitting there weeping!”  They approached God and asked, “Why are you weeping when your children the Israelites have been delivered by your power?”  God said to them, “I am weeping for the Egyptians washed up on the shore.  Those sons, those husbands, those fathers, are also my children.” 

        Today we remember images of a cloud of fire and smoke.  We remember the pain and heartbreak.  We remember our enemies singing and dancing for joy.  Perhaps we might also remember our God who does not rejoice at anyone’s victory but instead weeps at everyone’s loss.  It is this memory that might lead us down the road to forgiveness.                        Amen.            

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Three's a Crowd

Matthew 18:15-20

I love my daughter’s children, …… but. What a horrible way to start a sermon. Who doesn’t love their grandchildren? Andy and I ride bikes together. Austin thinks Woody Guthrie is the world’s greatest song writer. And then there is Siddalee. She is Janis Joplin before drugs. My grandchildren are creative, active, and sometimes very loud. I love them equally, especially when I get them one on one. I even do well when I’m playing with any combination of two.  But when the three of them are together; watch out. It is amazing the disruptive force that erupts when those three are occupying the same space. Sometimes it frightens me. I have been known to run to my bedroom, lock the door, and put myself in timeout. So don’t tell me when two or three are gathered, something good is about to happen. I know better. When I was young I heard Deep Purple. The decibel level of that concert does not begin to compare with the Paukert children when they gather in the same room. They play together so well in pairs. But when the third joins they go at it like …… adults.

Isn’t it precious how children imitate us? It seems in the adult world the only time anyone can agree is when they are by themselves. I believe if you put any three adults together and talk about sports, religion, or politics you will end up with five different opinions. Arguing is our national pastime. If you are not arguing with someone it is only because no one is talking to you. This is not something that just happened overnight. According to our scripture this has been going on since the time of Jesus. People argue. People get their feelings hurt. So what happens next?

This is one of those times when our scripture works best when we explore what is on both sides of the text we read. What you probably heard was, “If a member sins against you, point out their fault and see if they agree. If not, repeat the charge in the front of two folks. If the guilty will still not listen, wipe your hands of them. But if the two of you agree and if you are gathered in God’s name, you will be blessed.

That sounds pretty cut and dried. Any child can understand these conditions. Tell someone they hurt you. If they deny it, accuse them in the midst of a crowd. If they deny it again, tell them to take a hike. Then find some folks you really like and sing all three verses of Jesus Loves Me.

If it were only that simple. Let’s back up the bus to verse 18. “There was a shepherd who had 100 sheep. When he got home that evening, one of the sheep was missing. The shepherd went back into the mountains in the middle of the night to find the lost lamb. When he found the sheep, he rejoiced more over the reckless one than the 99 that never went astray. Remember, it is not the will of God that anyone should be lost.”

So let’s read between the lines. Do not think for one moment that Jesus was claiming the lost sheep was innocent. The rules were, stay in the flock, don’t wander off, and you will have a pretty good day. But this sheep got distracted. Maybe he saw some grass just over the hill that looked great. Maybe he stayed too long at the water hole. Maybe he was just too lazy to keep up. Whatever happened, it was not the fault of the shepherd. When you have 100 sheep it is hard to keep your eyes on everyone. Every member of the flock has to take responsibility for his own actions. But when the sheep turned up missing, blame no longer mattered. Now the shepherd had to make a decision. Why risk your neck going back out in the dark when you did everything right but someone else screwed up. Why not leave them? It’s their problem, let them fix it. That is what many of us would do. But God holds us to a higher standard. God expects us to make things right even if we are innocent. Let me put that in stronger words. God expects us to make things right especially if we are innocent.

Now let’s go back to verse 20. A person in the church has sinned against you. Another way of putting it is you get along great with 99 folks but there is this one guy that just has you in his crosshairs. You try to avoid him but that makes the situation even more awkward. Then Jesus has the nerve to say, “Go have a private talk with him.”

Now before you have that conversation I would remind you the Bible was not written by George Mason. You remember George Mason. He possessed the fervor but perhaps not the tact of his friend from Charlottesville. While Jefferson spoke eloquently of the rights of the individual, Mason was much more direct. Standing to speak against King George, Mason said, “Since the king’s will not be punished in the next world, it is up to us to punish him now.”

We applaud this sort of bombastic rhetoric. If we have been dishonored, let’s take a no prisoners. Let’s shame the person who harmed us. If my enemy is brutalized in the exchange, that is just too bad. They stepped over the line and need to be held accountable.

We believe when we confront another person, our primary goal is preserving truth. He did something wrong. We want a confession and we want satisfaction. That is the way we do things here in America. But Jesus didn’t grow up in Kansas. Jesus expects something different. Jesus wants the dignity of the guilty to be preserved.

If I have held you attention up to this moment your inner psyche is probably screaming, “Why would Jesus want me to do that?” The answer is something we might not want to hear. Jesus favors the wellness of the community over the rights of any individual.

Jesus says to us, “You know he is wrong and he knows he is wrong. But why do you want to ruin a relationship? Swallow your pride. Let him keep his. Give reconciliation a chance.”

We like celebrating the good news of the gospel. Here are some tough words from that same gospel. When we bind ourselves to Christ, we bind ourselves to the one who lived and died for the reconciliation of the world. When we bind ourselves to Christ, we are not free from each other, we are free in each other. We are not dependent on sameness but rather a diversity that allows us to see beyond our individual wants and needs.  When someone  puts themselves first, when someone harms another, Christ wants us to heal the wound rather than amputate the guilty.

How did I come to this outrageous conclusion? I read my bible. In the next verse Peter said, “This is tough stuff. Are you saying I’m supposed to forgive my adversary up to seven times?” 

We all know the answer without me sharing it.

The church is fundamentally a place where two or three, or twenty or a hundred folks with different stories and different opinions come together in mutual interdependence under Christ. That means that I am not as important as We. That means I have to trust folks who think differently than me. This means there will occasionally be conflict. So how will we the church model our conflict in a world which seems to have run out of options?

Paul writes, “Our whole creation has been groaning hoping for what it has not seen.” What the world has seen is too much revenge. What the world has heard is too much righteous indignation. But what the world seldom witnesses is a reconciliation that begins by placing our pride on the back burner. How do we do that?  

Can you multiplying seventy times seven?      Amen

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Heavy Lifting

Matthew 16:24-26; Romans 12:9-21
Heavy Lifting


        I realize that history is filled with examples of the church’s failure. But I think we too often forget that rewritten history often excludes the exploits of Godly people. I am reminded of this whenever I get into a conversation concerning international politics. Folks who have never heard of Urban II want to blame the debacle in the Middle East entirely on the Crusades. I do not deny the church has a bloody history. But it also has a redemptive history based on Christ’s mandate that we strive be better each day at who we are and what we do. As Christians we are encouraged to awaken each morning to the directive, “Deny yourself and take up the cross.” Beyond our history, beyond our misreading of history, beyond our yesterdays is this proclamation that we need to bring our faith to any conversation and offer our backs as part of any solution.

        Even if you don’t watch TV you are aware last week a catastrophic storm parked itself outside of Houston, Texas and refused to move. Each day rain fell on the concrete and asphalt. Each day people watched as the slow moving water crept to unimaginable levels. Each day the storm was replenished by the Gulf of Mexico. Each day the cycle repeated itself because the storm had no prevailing winds to push it eastward. Each day we sat helplessly, wondering what would become of thousands of displaced folks.

        Then we witnessed the heroes. It began with police and firefighters risking their lives to float folks to safety. We heard of response agencies such as FEMA signing folks up for relief even before first drop of rain fell. We cheered as state and national agencies moved to implement strategies that were developed in the aftermath of Katrina and Sandy. We even applauded as Democrats and Republicans finally dropped their rhetoric and only spoke of a common cause.

        But there were other heroes. My favorite was the Cajun Navy. Despite knowing that Harvey would eventually come their way, fisherman from Louisiana headed west to assist in the rescue.  They remembered 12 years ago when the State of Texas opened its doors to those fleeing New Orleans. The Cajun Navy came with every boat imaginable to aid in the rescue of its neighbors.

        It is inspirational to see people in anything that floats going into the water time, after time, after time in search of those needing help. In a country divided by tribalism, no one’s tribe seemed to matter. Black rescued white, white rescued brown, and brown rescued all colors in between. No one was too young or too old to offer a helping hand. No one cared which bathroom was used. We witnessed nameless heroes work beyond exhaustion. Sadly what we will witness next will not be so heroic.

People that understand the human psyche remind us that during a disaster, be it a hurricane or an unexpected death, folks will go through a long road before finding peace. Many of us felt this two weeks ago as we witnessed, in the words of John Grisham, “The violation of Charlottesville.” A tragedy occurs. It disrupts our lives. We panic.  Thankfully both strangers and loved ones race to our side. They take heroic risk just to make our lives manageable and we are overwhelmed by their random acts of kindness.

        But tragedy does not subside as quickly as it arrives. HEROES EVENTUALLY WEAR OUT. The heroic efforts we witnessed this week will not be sustained. Folks will move on, leaving behind a cloud of disillusionment. We will soon see tempers and voices escalate as anger, confusion, denial, and despair rise to the surface. You cannot replace a city and you cannot replace the loss of a loved one with a magic wand. Tragedy offers a shattering and discouraging reality that life will never be the same. 

This is where the real heavy lifting begins. It is then, when everyone else has gone home, that Jesus calls us to be cross bearers. You see, if cross bearing were easy, more people would do it. Cross bearing demands a commitment beyond what we thought was humanly possible. Maybe that is why cross bearing begins with a divine example.

        Jesus asked Peter, “Who do people say that I am?”

        Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus followed up with a tougher question, “Can you even begin to imagine what that means?”

Peter hopefully answered, “Life everlasting?”

Jesus responded, “You are right, but first you must join me in being a cross bearer.”     (stop)

Folks who suffer experience a hundred deaths. Cross bearer soon learn they weren’t called to resurrect the dead. They were called to resuscitate the living and that is a long, precarious journey.

A year ago I received a phone call from a dear friend who lives in North Carolina. His son had unexpectedly died of a heart attack. His only request was that I perform the funeral. Matthew had been a member of my youth group. We had gone on mission trips together. He was an old soul who loved Southern Rock and Roll. We spent many an evening at my house listening to The Allman Brothers Band. But now Matthew was gone.

Deb and I traveled to Clinton, visited the family, performed the funeral, and went then home. I received letters and phone calls telling me how healing my presence had been. But I knew better. You can’t put a band-aid on death. You have to be there when everyone else has gone. You have to listen until your ears bleed. You have to remain silent when everyone else is speaking. Then eventually you have to say the things no one else would dare utter. That is the difficult, thankless, yet necessary job of cross bearing.

In a week or so Houston will be dry and we will be complaining about gas prices going up to close to $3.00 a gallon. How do I know this? Because most folks are already weary of talking about what happened in Charlottesville. We turn the page on tragedy so quickly. We can’t seem to learn tragedy has no timetable.

I guess that is why Christ calls us to be cross bearers. For a few that might mean once a month sending a letter to a place like Emmanuel Church in Charleston and telling them we have not forgotten their tragedy. But for most of us it means the weary, exhausting, work of caring for the sick, or paying attention to  the lonely, or remembering that not every anniversary is a birthday, or just pulling up a chair and listening to the same story for the fiftieth time. Heroes perform miracles. Cross bearers complete the unrewarding and unrecognizable task of being a holy presence. Heroes find their stories recorded by CNN.  Those who bear another’s cross initiate a new redemptive chapter in someone’s life. That kind of history making is seldom recorded. But is the kind of history we the church always need to be making.              To God be the Glory.      Amen