Sunday, July 22, 2018

What is Your Story?

I Corinthians 13:13 – Part 3


        For most Christians faith is an adoption of or a reaction against two powerful forces:

        Your Personal Story,

        The Apostle Paul.

        Let’s begin with Paul. He is the starting point for practically any theological question that has to do with the Christian faith. All of the gospels were written in response to Paul.  Matthew, Mark and Luke were heavily influenced by Paul’s insistence on the humanity of Jesus. The Gospel of John celebrates the divinity of Jesus as a reaction to Paul’s beliefs. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin all used     the Book of Romans as their starting point for understanding God and Christ. You can love Paul or you can hate Paul but in order to approach Christian theology seriously, you have to start with Paul.

        Paul didn’t ask the question, “What do you believe?” Paul just told us what we were expected to believe. Paul was extremely confident in the answers he delivered. One can successfully argue the early writings of Paul are in conflict with the later writings of Paul. That is probably a fair assessment of everyone’s theological development. But what Paul believed anywhere along his theological journey, he believed fervently.

        Paul was at his systematic best, or worst, when locked away from the world. Under confinement Paul perceived everything clearly. His thoughts weren’t complicated by the messiness of life. The prime example of this would be his letter to the Romans. Scholars believe it was written late in his life while confined to house arrest. It is a powerful work professing Paul’s belief in both the sovereignty and the righteousness of God. It is in Romans that Paul fully develops his understanding of God’s plan for salvation. It goes like this. There is only one God and this God is the God of all creation and all human history. Second, salvation comes through the cross and resurrection. Christ is God’s gift for all people. Finally, the way humanity acknowledges this claim is through faith in Jesus Christ.

Locked in his room away from the questions and complexities of ordinary folks, Paul had the answer and the answer began with faith. But Paul was not always in his ivory tower. Sometimes he found himself standing between two combatants whom he loved dearly, trying to make heads or tails of some theological conundrum. Neither side was willing to compromise. Paul realized a solution had to come from beyond what each combatant claimed to believe was the answer. How ironic is that? The iron hand of theological truth looked beyond faith for a solution.

Of all Paul’s writings my favorite is the book of Philippians. Paul knew this church well and spoke often of his love for this congregation. When Paul became aware that some petty disagreements had developed between some of the members, he did not write, “Believe in Jesus and everything will take care of itself. He wrote, Make my joy complete by humbling yourself just like Jesus. Don’t place being right as your primary priority. Concentrate on being honorable and gentle and pure and pleasing. How was Paul able to jump from absolute truth to begging for a moment of decency? I think Paul remembered everyone comes to the table with a different story.

While we, the congregation of Rockfish Presbyterian, have a great deal of commonality, we are not the same. Let’s start with the obvious. Some of us come from Mars and others from Venus. Since the discovery of fire men allegedly have spoken for everyone. That is definitely not the case anymore. If you are still holding on to that false assumption your spouse will set you straight after the service.

We weren’t all born in Virginia or even in the United States. We come from different places, different cultures, and different experiences. We aren’t all Presbyterian. Some of you have never heard of John Knox. We aren’t all Republicans. Some of you still proudly display your Bernie bumper stickers. When classical music is mentioned, some think of Mozart, some think of the Rolling Stones and a few of us hum a Hank Williams tune.   Some of us still embrace our humble beginnings. Others of us are trying to change who people claim we are suppose to be.  Regardless, we all have a story and that story goes a long way in how we not only respond to others, but how we think theologically.

Paul certainly encountered this when he came to Corinth. Paul had a plan. He wanted to build a church and Corinth seemed the perfect spot. It was a city compiled of Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews. Paul figured it was the right place to begin something new. Everyone would give up their allegiance to their old life and become one in Christ. Just for the record Calvin tried the same experiment in Geneva. They kicked him out after about seven years. While Paul had great hopes, his recipe Corinth was a disaster. The congregation loved Paul. They probably made him Pastor Emeritus when he left, but the next day it became obvious each congregant had an individual mind, an individual story, and an individual approach to understanding God.  Once Paul left, the church exploded into chaos. Paul’s response was to send a series of letters he hoped would calm the waters. First Corinthians 13 is one of those letters.

If I speak in the tongue of mortals or angels, but do not have love I am a clanging gong. If I have faith to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.  

WOW!!! This hardly sounds like the Paul who wrote from captivity. If I read the poem correctly, Paul is saying faith is worthless if it doesn’t lovingly assist the way we interact with others.

Could it be the number one question on the theological hit parade isn’t WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE but rather HOW DO YOU LOVE? What would happen if we entered any discussion about faith, or politics, or who is going to win the World Series kindly, patiently, without arrogance, or resentment?  Those suggestions didn’t come from a Beetles tune but rather from Paul, the King of Dogma.

I have a theory that sometimes what I claim to believe is based more on my story than God’s. This allows me to easily discount every other story as heretical.   So what happens when loving is more important than believing? Could it open my ears to the stories and faith experiences of others? Could it help me admit that God’s universe and God’s imagination might be larger than mine? It is hard to publicly proclaim that my story limits my understanding of God because then I would be admitting that what I believe is limited by what I have experienced. In a weak, or perhaps a strong moment, Paul knew this. The great dogmatic voice of Christian theology, when faced with the practical dilemma of two people arguing about what is truth, was reduced to this response. Faith, Hope, Love; the greatest is Love.

Imagine if we suspicious folk, who value independence and self-proclaimed truth above everything else, could just for a moment imagine that God is OK with us listening to another’s story. How dangerous is that? Then again, how liberating might that be? This is hard stuff. Yet what good is it to believe in a God who proclaims to personify love and defend that God by squabbling with our neighbor and fighting with our enemies in the name of that same God?

Am I suggesting that we just toss everything we believe overboard?  Well maybe I am because if your faith separates you from your neighbor, or the stranger, or even an enemy, what good is it? 

Listen to what the author of First John wrote. Perhaps it is a response to the dogmatic tendencies of Paul. God is love. Those who abide in love, abide in God. There is no fear in love. Fear embraces punishment and anger. If you don’t love your brother or your sister how can you claim to love God? We are to love each other because God first loved us.

So which is more important, what we believe or what we do? Read Romans, but follow I Corinthians 13:13.    Amen

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Audacity of Hope

I Corinthians 13:13 - Part 2


The Grand Inquisitor is a parable found within Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov.  Jesus comes back to earth in the 15th century during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He befriends some common folks which led to his arrest by the authorities. A quick trial is concluded with the church telling Jesus he is no longer needed on earth. As he sits in his dungeon awaiting execution, Jesus receives a visit from the Grand Inquisitor. Allow me to share a paraphrase of that conversation. The Inquisitor speaks,

I have condemned you because of the responses you gave Satan during your confrontation in the wilderness. You had the chance to give the people bread and you refused. You could have produced a great of miracle by throwing yourself off the temple but you didn’t. You could have ruled the world yet you turned your back on the opportunity. Instead, you held before the people the freedom of choice. How many folks can handle that responsibility? They don’t want freedom; they want to be taken care of. We are the ones who give them bread. They are not smart enough to realize we take what they produce and give it back to them. We enslave them to build temples and they fall on their knees worshipping a God that requires loyalty. We rule over them, for they would rather be subjects of an iron hand than confused by the choices liberty demands. Like you, I went to the wilderness. I lived on roots and locust. I saw your path of humility and rejected it.  I will not join your madness. Your followers and I have one thing in common. You will be forgotten before the ashes of your body turn cold.

When the Inquisitor ceased speaking, he waited for Jesus to answer him. The old man longed for Jesus to say something, however bitter and terrible. Finally Jesus stood, approached the man in silence, and softly kissed him on his bloodless lips. The old man went to the jail door, opened it and said. “Go, and come no more.” And Jesus left.  

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky bases his book on the difficult questions intertwining faith and doubt. The Inquisitor could not comprehend what the people saw in Jesus. He thought Jesus offered freedom to folks he surmised needed order. Instead Jesus offered a hope that no amount of failure, suffering, or desolation could eradicate.

What is hope? We can’t prove heaven, yet we dream of it. We can’t prove God, yet we joyfully sing, “Our hope is based on nothing less.” Children hope to become adults. Adults hope to become children of God. Isn’t it in these dreams that we discover the possibility of truth? And isn’t it in this truth that we discover a hope beyond what we could ever imagine?

Paul wrote to his friends in Rome, “I consider the sufferings of the present time not worth the glory being revealed to us.” Then he concluded, “Hope is that which cannot be seen, yet we wait for with patience.”

I think of those children who wandered into that cave in Thailand. They kept going deeper into the cave to escape the rising waters. Some of the boys had never learned to swim. Imagine the fear that swept through that community once the boys were discovered missing. Yet once the word went out, the world responded. 13 foreign divers assisted the Thai Seal team. Language, lack of equipment, fatigue was overcome by the possibility that the twelve boys and their coach might still be alive. Hope rules the day, yet if the Grand Inquisitor had been in charge, don’t you believe he would have calculated the cost and declared the children expendable?

Grand Inquisitors are driven by tally sheets. Hope is sustained by unrelenting love and a persistent imagination which believes that which cannot be confirmed.  Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Unfortunately, despite what we witnessed this week, too often the Grand Inquisitor gets his way. 

George Watts, a 19th century English artist created a painting of a tranquil, blindfolded figure seated atop the planet Earth. Her head is sadly bowed as she plucks the only unbroken string of her harp. The name of the painting is Hope. I first encountered this painting in a sermon by Martin Luther King called Shattered Dreams. King describes the picture and then wrote, “We live in a world where our highest hopes are not realized. In despair some will distil all their frustrations into a core of bitterness and resentment. Some will withdraw completely into themselves. A few will adopt a fatalistic philosophy which believes everything is predetermined. But that woman still looks down on a world in disarray and plucks the only string remaining because she fervently believes God will hear her song.

We are practical people. We understand the rationale of the Grand Inquisitor better than we do the wishful plucks of a single string. It is absurd to think the way of the world will change just because it doesn’t suit us. And yet, despite all the evidence against us, we gather here on Sunday morning. This is the place where we pray for miracles we know will probably not happen. This is the place we care for the hungry, the injured and the impoverished realizing statistics say our generosity will not change anything. Yes, we are practical people, but we are first a resurrection people. In spite the evidence, we continue to believe that God hears and responds to the sound of that solitary note.

How crazy is that? Being fully aware of the ABSURDITY of hope, we choose to believe in the AUDACITY of hope. In other words, despite our anxiousness about tomorrow, we continue to work and dream of making today better.

Jesus had the audacity to say some absurd things. Do you recall the one where he insisted we not worry about what we eat, or drink, or wear? Just remember the lilies of the field. Or what about when Jesus said if people reject what you say, dust off your sandals and move on. Maybe the hardest to hear is Jesus promising there is peace amidst each storm and tranquility within each disaster. 

We can decide Jesus is absurd and join the ranks of the Grand Inquisitor and his ever growing army of minions. Or we might have the audacity to play a one note samba declaring God’s way not only puts blood in your lips, but also a song of hope in your heart.     To God be the glory.  Amen.           

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Why I Believe

I Corinthians 13:13 - Part 1


        I Corinthians 13 is one of the most beloved passages in the entire Bible. It might be hard to believe but Paul did not have a wedding in mind when he wrote these words. In fact it was quite the opposite. The church in Corinth was in turmoil.  A series of events coincided with a change in leadership and the members were at each other’s throat. Some of the problems were theological, some were practical and some of the folks just didn’t like each other. Each impasse ripped a larger hole into the delicate fiber holding the community together. Paul, almost out of desperation writes, “If I speak with the authority of a mortal or an angel but speak without love my words are useless. It hardly matters what I believe if doesn’t reflect the love of God. Faith and hope bring us together but first, and last, there must always be love.”

        For 2,000 years we have been trying to understand the power of those words. So forgive me if I take three weeks to raise some questions and observations which I hope will confirm the brilliance of Paul’s perspective:

                What do we believe?

What do we imagine God is in the process of doing?

What would motivate Paul to declare that neither faith nor hope is as important as love?

The Beatles were brazen enough to declare, “All we need is love”, but no one believes life is that simple. Yet how often do we take the time to actually contemplate what we believe? Most of us can recite the Apostles Creed from memory. But are the words etched on our hearts. Would it matter if they are not?

Douglas John Hall, Professor Emeritus of Theology at McGill University begins one of his books with these disturbing words. “I don’t see why anyone today would be a Christian.”  Before you turn your attention elsewhere, the statement begins a dialogue between a teacher and a student who dares to question any institutionalized religion in this time of secular reasoning and pluralism. The student has a point. What do we believe? Why do we believe?

I was born in a cotton mill village in northwestern Georgia. I was baptized in the Presbyterian Church. Not everyone in Cedartown went to the Presbyterian Church but on Sunday morning I imagine most folks were sitting in some church. There was no Mosque or Synagogue in Cedartown. The only non-Christians we knew about were the folks in Africa our brave missionaries were trying to convert. Growing up I never remember anyone suggesting there might not be a God. The stores were owned and the banks run by the same folks who were the elders and deacons at my church. In the towns I grew up in it seemed being a successful Christian and a successful business person were one in the same. My culture and my faith were merged. Then I made the first mistake of my faith journey. I began to read the Bible.

Don’t get me wrong. I had read the Bible all my life. My grandmother used to give me a five dollar bill each time I read the book cover to cover. I collected on her challenge more than one, the first being just before my tenth birthday. I became a “Wikipedia of Biblical facts” but I hardly understood much of what I was reading.  I had my favorite passages. Most of them proved how righteous I was compared to everyone else. I must confess I have yet to completely rid myself of that shortcoming.

But at some point in time I discovered every one of my Biblical heroes was flawed. That was devastating. Moses and David committed murder. Elijah succumbed to fear. Solomon was not as wise as he or I imagined. Amos was a bit too arrogant. Ezekiel was a bit too perfect. Each of my heroes was damaged goods. Even worse, their faith became the incentive for their ungodly actions. Moses murdered an Egyptian out of righteous anger. David had Uriah killed because as God’s anointed, David believed his desires were preordained. Elijah became afraid when he discovered power only conquers, it doesn’t convert. Solomon was so smart he destroyed Israel with his thoughtlessness. Intellectually I had embraced each of these men. When their flaws were revealed, my truths were exposed. My understanding of God was wrapped up in the personalities and abilities of each of my heroes. I believed God would make me powerful. I believed God would make me all-knowing. I believed God would keep me from fear. I had turned the Bible into a Marvel Comic book. Then suddenly I was accosted by doubt.

40 years ago I was a newly ordained minister in Wilmington, North Carolina. I was asked to teach a midweek two year study of the Bible. The first week there was a group of 20 folks who had committed to this daunting task. I began by explaining how the creation story was a poem. I spent the next hour trying to convince half the class not to leave. One woman asked, “If the world was not created in seven days, what else will you ask me not to believe?”

That is an excellent question. If faith is built on certainty, or what another declares as doctrine, then faith stands on a fragile foundation. When that faith erodes, doubt, a devastating and enlightening passion, is born. It is devastating because we are asked to question what we once considered to be an unconditional truth. But it is enlightening because a faith that shows no doubt is most assuredly dead.

To paraphrase Paul, when I was a child I knew everything there was to know about God. But as I became older my faith moved from an intellectual puzzle describing an omnipotent being to a relationship with a mystery that I no longer needed to define. Instead of being sure who God is I learned to place my trust in something beyond my comprehension. Instead of declaring myself perfect, I discovered God was capable of transformational moments despite my imperfections.

Thankfully, doubt still lingers. If it didn’t, that would be the first sign that I had regressed back into my childhood. Saying that questions are more important than answers sounds like a cliché, but there are reasons that certain clichés have a long shelf life.

Thankfully, anger still lingers. Outsiders want Christians to be nice and joyful and pretty much docile. But we live in a world filled with suffering, sorrow, discord, and grief. The Bible I read is filled with stories of folks who sacrificed their happiness, their joy, for the sake of another. The Bible never said, “God helps those who help themselves.” That was Thomas Jefferson. The Bible said, “If you have two coats, give one to a stranger.”

Thankfully love still lingers. How can faith matter if it is only one dimensional? If the full extent of my faith is only cheating death, then perhaps I really don’t understand why God created me? But if in the midst of the world’s suffering, sorrow, discord and grief, I believe God speaks, then God’s primary discourse must be, “Love one another.”

And that can be difficult. I believe in God but often I am confused by what other Godly folks claim to believe. I become frustrated with their words and actions. I find it hard to believe they might be equally irritated with my words and actions. It is like we are playing out the drama in Corinth all over again. We all believe, but sometimes we can’t believe what others are doing in God’s name.

So what do we do? Perhaps believing is our first child-like step. But loving is the more difficult Godly step. If I believe but don’t love, I am little more than a clanging bell that irritates but never transforms.

Does my faith allow me to hear the groans of another? Does my faith allow me to value the faith of another?

Is my faith grounded in love?

“Faith, hope, love”…….. Well, you know the rest. 

To God be the glory.    Amen.




Sunday, July 1, 2018

Waiting for Death

Mark 5:21-43


William Sloan Coffin observed, “The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, and as soon as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives.” I guess you could say I am preaching to the choir. These days we attend more funerals that weddings which is pretty remarkable when you consider a funeral is a once in a lifetime event. I suspect most of us have made plans concerning our death. If not, a member of the cemetery committee would be more than delighted to sit down and chat. I plan for my remains to be tossed off Humpback Rock. My grandson promised to take care of the deed as long as I die during the summer.  Death is something we joke about, but seldom think about, until tragedy strikes or someone we love becomes ill and then we realize death is the one thing we all have in common.

Death is not unique, yet we uniquely encounter death in different ways. I have a good friend struggling with what could be a life threatening heart condition. Does he want my thoughts, my ear, my prayers, or my silence? There is no prescribed script in confronting ones mortality.  The one thing I have learned is when death darkens one’s doorstep; thoughts on mortality become delicately heightened.

When a child claims a spot around the family table death is the last conversation considered. New birth brings joy, laughter, a sense of awe just waiting to be discovered.  A few years ago my son went to a local rescue kennel and picked out a dog. David was transformed by this new addition to his family. When he asked why we never had pets I sarcastically responded, “We had you and your sister.” He just shook his head and continued playing fetch with Kaylee. Sixteen months ago his wife gave birth to Molly Jane. Now when Deb and I go to Christiansburg to see our newest grandchild I spend most of my time playing fetch with a dog who wonders what happened to her life.

Children do this to us. Our lives stop as we anxiously await her first word. We pick out her first bicycle before the first step is taken.  Today parents scrutinize Day Care Centers as if they were picking out a college. And with good reason, they cost about the same. Nothing is more precious than a child.  So we don’t have to imagine the panic that overwhelmed Jairus in this morning’s text. One moment his daughter is picking flowers. The next she lays collapsed on the ground gasping for breath. Doctors are called in but they can only shake their heads. Death seems certain. Then someone suggest Jairus go find Jesus. Rumors abound the young man from Galilee heals the sick. Days before Jairus probably had been in the synagogue discussing how the community might rid itself of this charlatan.  But now his daughter is sick. Common sense is placed on the back burner when death enters. Jairus leaves his home, runs to where Jesus was preaching, throws himself at his feet and begs, “Can you save my daughter?” Jesus responded, “Yes I can.” Immediately they rush to see the sick child.

A woman with no name blocks their way, and Jesus stops.  Can you imagine how this must have frustrated Jairus? He didn’t know the woman’s name but he probably knew her story. She had been ill for twelve years. Why should one more day matter? Jesus would be around tomorrow but his daughter would not. Jesus stopped and life ebbed out of the daughters veins. Jesus stopped and a heart so filled with hope was shattered into a million pieces.

That is what death can do to us. We, who proclaim the resurrection, are left speechless when accosted by death. We don’t lose our faith, but our dreams become somewhat bruised. Our formula for life doesn’t include the death of an infant, or a child, or even a young adult.  We offer pithy little sayings like, “A parent should never bury a child.” That might be true but I have never been to any funeral where sadness was absent. Regardless of our faith, death brings a conclusion to life. The relationship ends, the dreams end, and worst of all, the conversations end. Someone is left alone and silent. It is then that I am often asked, “Why did God allow this to happen now?”

The Wisdom of Solomon is a book that did not make it into the Old Testament. If your Bible has an Apocrypha you might glance at it occasionally. The Wisdom of Solomon begins with this radical statement, “God did not make death and God does not delight in the death of the living.” So who do we blame? Jairus blamed the woman who kidnapped Jesus. The woman blamed a community that had tossed her aside. Jesus probably blamed the inevitable. No matter how many folks Jesus heals, death still trudges forward.

I have come to believe this story is much deeper than a girl and woman momentarily escaping death. The miracle is that the woman touched Jesus. Imagine the courage it must have taken for an outcast, an untouchable, to reach out and make contact with a man. She didn’t just want to be healed; she wanted to be acknowledged. She wanted Jesus to recognize her. She wanted to live but she also wanted to experience acceptance and intimacy. She wanted to touch and be touched. So many folks die long before their casket is rolled toward the cemetery. Having lived in isolation much of their life, death completes a life hardly lived.  

I wonder how this story would be told today. I suspect the roles would have been reversed. A woman discovers her husband has a life threatening illness. She is told there is nothing that can be done. In desperation and against all odds she flies to California to speak to a young preacher who has been called a healer. She places an airline ticket in his hand and begs the healer to come with her. As they are leaving the church a 15 year old reaches out and touches the healer. Jesus stops, recognizes emptiness, lets the ticket drop to the ground and embraces the young boy.

Almost everyone within the sound of my voice has come to terms with mortality. We have lived good lives. We have insurance policies which cover any bases we might have overlooked. No one welcomes death but as we slow down we understand life has been good to us. We have lived among friends. Death will bring both closure and hope.

Many young people the age of my grandchildren have lost the ability to imagine a future. They are emotionally hemorrhaging yet hardly noticed. Suicide in children between 7 and 17 is up 70% in the last ten years. Depression and loneliness are often cited as the number one cause. We who are older have come to understand and live with death. Children who have never experienced life are turning to death as an acceptable alternative.

Could it be that they have reached out and no one felt their touch? Miracles happen when our lives are interrupted for the sake of another. Jesus stopped and a life was saved. As we continue our rush from one spot to another perhaps we can occasionally stop and find time for a small soul who has lost his way. It is amazing what a word or a touch might do for someone far too young to be waiting for death.    

To God be the glory.          Amen