Sunday, September 29, 2019

Investing in Their Future


Luke 16:19-31; Jeremiah 32:6-15

 

        Sometimes Jesus said the strangest things. In Luke 16:13, Jesus insisted, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” The implication is if you have money you must be evil. That is as ridiculous as suggesting if you are poor you are blessed. Well Jesus said that too but we know he was speaking allegorically. On hearing both statements the Pharisees reacted vigorously. They pointed out that without money the synagogue could not exist and what on earth would people would do without the church.

        Instead of arguing, Jesus told a story. Once upon a time there was a rich man who loved to eat. Morning, noon, and evening he could be found surrounded by friends consuming the finest wines and the richest foods. Just outside the dining room was a beggar named Lazarus. The presence of the beggar never seemed to bother the rich man. As it turns out the only thing the beggar and the rich man had in common was they died on the same day. Here is where the story gets weird. The rich man faced eternal torment while Lazarus rested in the arms of Abraham. The rich man called out, “Father Abraham, send Lazarus down here that he might dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Abraham refused.

The rich man tried again, “Send Lazarus to my house to warn my brothers not to live like me. Please Father Abraham, they would see the truth if they could hear it from someone who came back from the dead.” 

Abraham responded, “They have Moses and the prophets and they won’t listen to them. Why do you think they will listen to someone raised from the dead?” 

There are a number of rabbit holes we could take in looking at this text. The obvious is the turn or burn message. You have the wrong preacher to go down that road.

We could spend time looking at the Jewish understanding of afterlife as it evolved from a strict Deuteronomic Code to a curiosity based on Persian Folklore. But that sounds best suited for a Sunday School lesson. Besides, if I am going down a rabbit hole, I would rather travel with Jesus.

Jesus lived in two worlds. When preaching in the countryside Jesus was overwhelmed by request from the poor and the sick. Often poverty led to poor health. Certainly sickness leads to poverty. That is just as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. On the other hand Jesus got invited to eat out quite often. He would dine with folks who worked hard and their labors were rewarded. It was these folks who were privy to many of the stories Jesus told. Usually he was not as much concerned about wealth as he was about how one’s wealth was being used. After all Jesus did say, “To those to whom much has been given, much is expected.” So maybe this story is more about the line, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn’t even listen to someone resurrected from the dead.”

The Pharisees were experts on Moses and the prophets.  They knew the law they loved evolved from the exploits of Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. They knew these prophets were visionaries. The prophets saw the conditions of today as a springboard for the possibilities of tomorrow.

A prime example would be the story of Jeremiah. If you have never read the book of Jeremiah don’t attempt it without alcohol. If Jeremiah hadn’t been a prophet he would have been a country music song writer. I think Jeremiah was probably the inspiration for the line, “Help me make it through the night.” Yet even Jeremiah could recognize the flicker of light that exposes itself just before the sunrise.

Jeremiah lived in horrific times. Jerusalem was being besieged by the armies of Babylon and he didn’t have to be a prophet to know things were going to end badly. Most folks were writing their last will and testament. Jeremiah decided to go into the real estate business. Let me put this into a perspective we can all understand. This would be like buying property in the Bahamas the day before Hurricane Dorian made landfall. What Jeremiah was about to buy would soon be worthless.  But Jeremiah did not live for the moment. This melancholy poet took the newly purchased bill of sell, placed it in an earthen pot, and planted it into the ground. He believed one day the Hebrew people would return to Jerusalem.  When they did, the land purchased would be the place a new beginning would begin.

This is a dominate message that resonated through the Old Testament and into the stories of Jesus. God wants us  to invest in the future of someone else. The Hebrews kept asking, “Am I my brother and sisters keeper?”  God’s answer was always, “Yes.” The Pharisees endlessly asked Jesus, “How do I become a good neighbor?” Jesus always responded, “By showing mercy.”

The sin of the rich man was not his wealth, it was his eyesight. Day after day Lazarus came to his house. Day after day Lazarus was unseen. Then one day God, who has a remarkable sense of irony, turned the tables on the rich man and he miraculously developed 20/20 vision.

Thanks to the generosity of this church Deb and I spent our last two weeks immersed in a journey which covered 2,000 years.  Part of our experience was exploring the most impressive cathedrals in the United Kingdom. I am not sure which was more inspiring, the end product or the stories of their construction.

Works of art like the cathedrals in Salisbury and Canterbury were not completed in a matter of years. In some cases the work took two or three generations. The men who began these projects knew their dream would never be completed in their lifetime. So they thought ahead. Massive trees were cut down to suspend the ceilings. Then seedlings were planted so the next generation could have an ample wood supply for the completion of the project.   The future was planned by those who would never see a finished product.  They invested in future of their grandchildren.

All of us have been blessed. Think of all the opportunities we have to invest in the future of our neighbors through simple acts of mercy. Many of you were teachers. Many of you worked in health care. You invested your talents on behalf of those around you. Today we continue to recognize the plight others and respond through our outreach ministries.  Next month all those programs will be on display during worship and we will have the chance to further support them with our hands and hearts.

But over the last few weeks we have witnessed a younger Lazarus standing outside our door. Children, articulate children, have spoken to Congress, to the United Nations, to us, about rising seas, melting glaciers, fossil fuels, and plastic waste that is killing our oceans. These young voices are asking us to invest in their future.

You see, if we look, if we listen, if we remember Jesus and the prophets, we might discover opportunities for transformation just outside our doorsteps.      Amen.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

There is Always Something Left


Luke 14:7-11

 

        PK’s are never impressed with Church dinners. If you haven’t guessed PK’s are “preacher’s kids”. There are three basic rules associated with being a PK. These rules were passed down from my beloved father and I faithfully passed them down to my children.

        Rule #1 - PK’s will be at church whenever the doors open.

        Rule #2 – A PK is allowed only two responses, “Yes ma’am or No ma’am.”

        Rule #3, and this is the most important rule of all. Never, under any circumstances, go anyplace but the back of the line at a church dinner.

        Once, after missing out on deviled eggs three church dinners in a row, I asked my father why I always had to go to the back of the line. He frowned and said, “Luke 14:11.”

        I knew better than to ask my father what Jesus had said in the 14th chapter of Luke. He already had me memorizing the names of the books of the Bible and I didn’t want to learn how to spell them. So I looked it up. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

        I knew the meaning of the word humble. When you are PK that is one of the first word you are taught. It lesson comes immediately after uttering  the phrase, “I want.” But I had never heard the word exalted. I was only six and I don’t remember my Second Grade Primer exclaiming, “See Dick run. See Jane be exalted.” To avoid a confrontation I went back to the Book of Luke and read the whole story. 

Jesus and his disciples were invited to a wedding. They evidently arrived early and the place was half full. The disciples picked out what appeared to be the choice seats and sat down. Jesus quickly corrected them. “You might be taking a seat that has been designated for the parents of the bride or groom. Think how embarrassing it would be to be asked to move. Sit in the back. When the host comes and sees us, he can ask us to move forward. Be humble and people will invite you to move forward.”

My initially thought was no one has ever come to the back of the line and offered me a deviled egg. I realized the sayings of Jesus were too complex for my limited in-sights.

Even today, the idea of the first shall be last and the last first seems a bit farfetched. The New York Yankees have won 27 World Championships.  They didn’t accomplish that by being humble. In contrast the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals have not won in 50 years. Isn’t that a long time to wait to be moved up to a better seat? What is Jesus trying to tell us?

In 1949 Howard Thurman wrote Jesus and the Disinherited. It begins, The significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall has always seemed to me to be crucial. Why is it then that Christianity seems impotent to radically deal with injustice?

Thurman offers three truths that haunt the disenfranchised and one solution. The first is fear. Thurman calls it the persistent hound of hell. People in general have their cavalcade of fears. Those at the back of line daily live with fears we never consider. Some folks, just down the road from us, live from one pay check to pay check. That is frightening.  Some folks, just down the road from us, have to decide on spending their pay check on food or medicine. That is frightening. Some folks, just down the road from us, are frightened when they see blinking police lights in their rear view mirror.  That is their reality, not ours.

The second is deception. Thruman claims this is the oldest of all techniques by which the weak protect themselves from the strong. It is a technique used by the Psalmist. The king has done something outrageous. The people are outraged and turn to the poet. If the poet stirs up the people, soldiers will descend on the weak. So the poet prays to God. The Psalm describes the outrage but the words are addressed to a heavenly source. The king can only bow his head. Violence is avoided, but the conditions remain. The strategy is tragic but the weak survive.

The third is hate. Hatred cannot be defined, only described. Some of you remember Pearl Harbor. All of us remember 9/11. As a nation we wanted revenge. We act righteously and in some cases unrighteously. In 1941 Japanese-Americans were interned in prison camps in Arkansas.  In 2001, anyone from the Middle East was eyed suspiciously as an enemy. Even today too often a person is condemned because of the color of their skin. Occasionally preachers like myself will offer sanctimonious words from the pulpit, but those words are forgotten by both the spokesman and the audience before lunch. Hate is so easily justified by righteous indignation because the pronoun in our hateful speech is always “They”.

Jesus was born an outsider. The color of his skin was brown. The Jewish people were dominated by Rome and Rome was to be feared. The Jews used polite deceptions to try to overcome the dominance of this Empire. The Governor of Rome hated his position and he hated the people under his thumb. Jesus was no exception.

Jesus could have grabbed a sword and started a revolt. Some expected it. He could have retreated into the desert and started a prayer group. Many would have eagerly followed. Instead Jesus told stories. Amazingly, so many of those stories revolved around a simple theme. Every person is essentially another person’s neighbor. Jesus said loving that neighbor began by breaking down every barriers. Think of all the stories. The obvious is the Good Samaritan. But it didn’t end there. He told stories about broken relationships, stories about lost sheep, stories about widows, and stories about lepers. No one hung out with the sick, the blind, the gentiles, the Pharisees, the good, the bad the ugly like Jesus.  He sat with friends and enemies, truth tellers and manipulators, rich and poor, good and evil. It didn’t matter. You invite Jesus to lunch, he would show up. He would do anything but go to the head of the table. And why was that? Jesus knew there was always someone there who had been labeled as unworthy, so Jesus offered up his seat to them.

Jesus entered a world which lived by two basic truths. The first was, “An eye for an eye.” The second was similar. “Vengeance is mine.” Jesus rejected both. He claimed the Spirit of God had fallen upon him to preach good news to the poor, the sick, the lame, the broken, the forgotten, and the disinherited.” His motto was, “God loves you, God forgives you, and so do I.” Imagine what the world would be like if fear, deception, and hate could be nullified by love. Maybe the world Jesus longs to see begins when folks like us are willing to head for the back of the line.

To God Be the Glory.   Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Saints Among Us


Hebrews 12:1&2

 

        Yesterday I preached the meditation for the funeral of a saint.  Everyone should have the opportunity to do that at least once. That might sound a bit morbid but I found it to be quite uplifting. Maybe we should recognize the saints among us before they die. They would be embarrassed by our accolades but isn’t it wonderful to bath in a feel good story.

        The most amazing thing about a saint is they allow us to see beyond what is right in front of us. Everyone recognizes problems. Everyone fears potential failures. We struggle with drama because we expect things to go sideways. Saints point out what God and godly folks are doing in our midst. Saints accomplish what we believe to be impossible because saints are not subject to our limited vision. Saints function like a pair of corrective lenses. Remember the first time the optometrist put a pair of glasses on our nose.  I was nine years old before realizing leaves fell from trees. I thought they just appeared on the ground. Saints don’t suffer from limited vision.

        My favorite saint is Alice Taylor. I am certain I have mentioned her but her story is worth hearing again. In the late 1970’s Alice was stuck in an abusive marriage. Alice was also trying to come to terms with discovering she was a lesbian. Her church told her she was damned to hell unless she would renounce her discovery. She tried conversation therapy.  Her minister attempted to perform an exorcism. Her husband divorced her and Alice was literally thrown out on the streets of Va. Beach. She went to St. Columba Presbyterian Church and asked the minister, Nibs Stroupe, if he had any odd jobs she could do to earn some money. Nibs told her if she could sweep floors twice a week she could sleep in the sanctuary. Alice confessed to Nibs that she was a lesbian.  

Nibs responded, “Do lesbians not sweep floors?”

Alice was horrified at the response. She cried out, “I am a lesbian. It would be shameful for me to sleep in the sanctuary.”

Nibs responded, “Who told you that? You are a child of God. Where else should you be but in your father’s house?”

Alice eventually was made the part-time custodian and also she was put in charge of a food and clothes pantry. But the demographics of the community changed as the neighborhood houses were demolished and turned into shopping malls. The church was forced to close its doors. Alice went to Norfolk Presbytery and asked if the building could become a ministry for homeless folks. Her adventure survived at its original location three years. Then Alice moved to a deserted fire station. She used the expanded building to minister to the city of Norfolk. She began a winter homeless shelter that operated within 15 churches. Many of those folks slept in you guessed it, the sanctuary. Eventually she moved to another building and spent every waking hour helping folks get off the street and into affordable housing.  Alice never left the Presbyterian Church. Ten years ago she became an ordained elder. Her partner of 35 years recently graduated from Union Seminary. Alice is now retired but St. Columba Ministry continues to thrive in the Hampton Roads area.

It is true, Alice was bigger than life. Folks throughout the country know her story. I am blessed to have worked with her and our friendship is a highlight in my life. But most saints work in obscurity. That doesn’t mean that the work they do is any less important.

My friend JoAnn married a young man called to be a minister. Spouses of ministers often get buried in the shadow of the one they love. JoAnn seemed happy to stay in that shadow. Malcolm preached. JoAnn sang in the choir. Malcolm ministered to adults. JoAnn nurtured children. My two children, Martina and David, loved JoAnn.

JoAnn and I co-wrote five Vacation Bible Schools. The only resource we used was the Bible. I think that was the beginning of my discovering how much amazing stuff is in this book. Our productions were magnificent. Cecille B. DeMille would have been jealous. But the most amazing part was JoAnn insisting children have a major role in anything we created. JoAnn believed children could visualize the impossible because adults had not yet ruined their imaginations. If you were a child at Winter Park Presbyterian it was like being transported to Never Neverland. Only Jesus was Peter Pan and Captain Hook did not exist.  

While Deb and I went on to new adventures, JoAnn stayed behind in Wilmington. Malcolm died 18 years ago but until last week JoAnn was still going strong. The only complaint I ever heard from JoAnn was that occasionally adults kept limiting what was possible. She undertook her last adventure at 85. She signed up for a Ukulele Camp. Everyone in the camp was under the age of 15, except for JoAnn. Once she completed the camp she asked the worship committee to allow her friends to lead the music one Sunday month. She said it would give the old folks in the choir a break.

The writer of Hebrews wrote, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us put aside every excuse and run the race that is set before us.”

I know while I was telling these two stories, some of you were reminded of saints in your life. They may still be living. He or she may be sitting next to you. They are those folks, young and old, who are not limited by age. They are those folks who are not limited by labels. Sainthood is not an exclusive club. Every one has been given a Godly vision. It just takes some of us longer to understand the talent we have been given. It’s easier to recognize sainthood in others.

So here is what I want you to do. Take a moment and think of someone who has been a saint in your life. Now I am going to count to three. When I say three call out the name of that person. Say it loud and say it proud. They have run a race for you. Here we go 1…2…3.    

That was awful. Say it like you mean it. Say the name loud enough so God can hear you. One more time.  1…2…3.

How did they become a saint? What was her story? What did he overcome? What was the constant anchor in her life? For Alice and JoAnn it began with a faith in a living God who would not let church or culture or limited thinking push them into the shadows. They found the courage and perseverance to move forward because they never doubted God had put them here for a purpose.  To paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King, “Everyone can be a saint because anyone can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree. You don’t have to have a million dollars. You don’t even have to make your subject and noun agree. All you need is heart full of grace and a soul motivated by love.”

I am going to count to three one more time. This time say your own name. Say it loud and say it proud. 1,2,3.  

        What you heard was the roll call of the saints. Now go out there and make God proud.          Amen.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Does God Still Have Faith in Us?


Isaiah 1:10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3

 

        I am tired of waking up every morning and seeing the flag at half mast.

 

        I am tired of politicians blaming everyone and everything but themselves.

 

        I am tired of commentators claiming they are experts when they have no idea what they are talking about.

 

        I am tired of wearing out my knees praying to a God who seems to be absent.

 

        If the book of Isaiah had a preface these complaints would have been the laments of the prophet. Jerusalem was a mess. Assyria had destroyed Israel and appeared to be headed for Judah. King Uzziah, one of the most corrupt kings of Judah was on his death bed. The majority of the inhabitants of Jerusalem lived in poverty. The Temple was essentially closed for worship. And the few faithful that were left prayed to God for relief from their misery. The answer was hardly what they expected.

        The Book of Isaiah begins with these words. “Your prayers, your sacrifices, your worship is an abomination to me. You remind me of Sodom and Gomorrah.” You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to know that God was not happy. The text continues. “I can’t bear listening to your prayers. You have deceit on your lips and blood on your hands.”

        This is a dangerous text. The sacrifices of the people have been rejected. They went looking for God and found how risky that can be. The people cried out for salvation and were told, “You are the source of your pain. Are their forty or twenty righteous people among you? Is there even one in your midst who is faithful? Are you worth the energy it would take for restoration? Even if I did what you ask, what guarantees do I have you won’t return to your wicked ways.”

        Having released all that wrath God regained emotional control and declared to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,

        Wash yourself,

        Learn to do good.

        Seek justice for the poor.

        Stand beside the oppressed.

        Defend the orphan.

        Plead for the widow.

 

        If you do this, even though your sins are like scarlet, I shall make them as snow.

 

        When I read this text my initial thought was, “Can it really be that easy?” But then my suspicious mind wondered how often the folks in Jerusalem actually saw snow. Was this a once in a lifetime experience. To my great surprise I discovered it snows in Jerusalem three or four times each winter. Forgiveness was possible. The real question was, “How do you thaw a frozen heart?”

        I attend Sunday School every week. It was a habit I started as a child and I never got over it. I promise you a favorite topic of any Sunday School class is faith. The first question is always, “Do you have faith in God?” Nine out of ten folks will respond, “If I didn’t, do you think I would be here this morning.” Allow me to ask a different question. “Do you think God has faith in us?”

        That hardly seems to be a fair question. Isn’t faith all about what God will do for me? Didn’t God create me? Didn’t Jesus die for me? Didn’t God resurrect Jesus for me?  Did you ever consider that those questions are the beginning and not the end of our relationship with God?

        Here is another strange question. What if us getting into heaven was never God’s primary objective? What if God’s primary goal is helping us to make earth more heavenly?

Quoting the Book of Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.”

Could it be that from the beginning God has hoped that we would have the conviction to:

       

 

 

Learn to do good.

        Seek justice.

        Stand beside the oppressed.

        Defend the orphan.

        Plead for the widow.

 

        That takes a lot of faith on God’s part because it seems our convictions toward those objectives are often lacking. Like those folks in Jerusalem we appear overwhelmed by the tragedies that surround us yet we continue to insist any solutions are too far difficult or constitutionally out of the question. So we pray to God for a miracle.

        Might I suggest you read Hebrews 11. After defining faith, the author takes us to Sunday School. Remember Sarah. She became pregnant at 90. Yes that is a miracle, but you think God raised Isaac? Sarah fed, bathed, and nurtured the child until he left home. Deb keeps our grandchildren for a week and it about kills me. How did Sarah manage? She had faith in God and God had faith in her.

        Moses saw a burning bush. Yes, that was a miracle. But then Moses took on Pharaoh, crossed the Red Sea, spent 40 years in the wilderness and every single day the children of Israel whined. Why did Moses sign up for all that misery? He had faith in God and God had faith in him.

        The walls of Jericho fell before Joshua. God pulled them down. But Joshua spent the rest of his life getting 12 tribes to act as one nation.

        The easiest thing David ever did was kill Goliath.

        God brought down fire on Mt. Carmel but that was only the beginning of Elijah’s work. Consider Jeremiah and all the prophets? They were ridiculed, jailed and murdered. But did they deny their faith? Maybe. Did God desert them? No!

        Finally the writer of the Book of Hebrews points to Jesus. We remember all the miracles like feeding the 5,000, walking on water, resurrecting Lazarus, restoring sight to the blind. We forget the majority of his work was teaching 12 illiterate men, lifting up the oppressed, standing beside children, recognizing the poor and blasting the religious folks for failing to be moral. Jesus consistently sang one son. “God loves you. So why can’t you have faith in one another?” Yes, Jesus had faith in God, but God also had faith in him.

        So where do we place our faith? Is it in God? Is it in an economic system? Is it in leaders who tell us they know what is good for us? Is it in dreamers? Is it in those incapable of dreaming? Is it in anyone? That question might be far too complicated. So let me ask another. What do you think God expects of us? Has God’s vision radically changed since the time of Isaiah?

        I like to think of myself as an optimist.  I have always believed America to be the land of the free, a land of justice and righteousness, a land capable of putting an end to violence, inequality, racism, and greed. But many Americans have never experienced the opportunities I had from birth.

        So I wonder, if God grows tired of waking up to the flag at half mast. I wonder if God is growing tired of everyone blaming everyone but themselves. I wonder if God is growing tired of talking heads that have no idea what they are talking about. I wonder if God is growing tired of our divisions and lack of moral integrity. I wonder if God is growing tired of waiting for us to have the courage to do more than pray.

        What are we waiting for? Snow in December?

                                        To God be the glory.   Amen.

       

  

 

         

Sunday, August 4, 2019

I Taught You How to Walk


Hosea 11:1-11

“I Taught You How to Walk”

 

I can never remember a moment I did not love my children. Granted, David and Martina are now both grown. Each has their own family which includes that wonderful component call grandchildren.  So you might accuse me of romantically claiming the parenting adventure was one joy filled journey with only great memories. But you would be wrong. I always have and always will love my children. But there were times they nearly broke my heart.

I still remember the first night we expelled Martina from our bedroom. The first thing every perspective mother and father does is read a book on parenting. It doesn’t matter if the author knows what he is talking about. We make our choice and claim those words to be holy. Our canon of enlightenment proclaimed that within a month of coming home the child must be given her own space at night. I think this was written by some guy who was jealous of the creature that had invaded his bedroom. None-the-less we, the faithful followers of the parenting guru sentenced Martina to a night alone in her new room. She wailed long and hard. Deb and I sat huddled just outside her door reminding each other that giving into her cries would begin our downfall as responsible parents.   We lost sleep. Martina learned independence, a trait she never relinquished.

David always went to bed without a problem. He played hard and slept hard. But no matter what we did David woke up promptly at 2:30 and he woke up angry. Only a bottle would quiet his demons. Sometimes David was so enraged he wouldn’t even take the bottle. I would pick him up, take him to the den, turn on the TV, and watch the TBS reruns of the Atlanta Braves baseball game. It took desperate measures by Deb to break both of us of that nightly habit.

Parenting is hard. I once asked my one year old daughter to please tell me what she wanted. Once she learned to talk, I swear her first word was “Why?”

Why do I have to eat vegetables?

Why do I have to go to school?

Why do I have to get up?

Why do I have to go to church?

Why do I have to wear socks that match?

Why? Why? Why?

 

I once made the mistake of responding, “Mommy and Daddy know what is best for you.” Neither of my children bought that explanation. We encouraged them to be free thinkers and they didn’t think much of what we thought.

But we did do a couple of things right. We allowed them to fail hoping they would learn from their failures. By doing this we discovered was how different our children were. Failure for Martina was the end of the world. We endured her pain. Failure for David was just permission to take the road less traveled. Sometimes he scared us to death.

We had and still have creative, intelligent, caring, and healthy kids. They never got into drugs or alcohol. They excelled in school, played sports, volunteered regularly at soup kitchens and our local Aids Foundation.   They were independent thinkers. If I said an intersection was dangerous they would build a tunnel to get to the other side. They wanted to learn life on their own. Until they were 21 Martina and David saw Deb and me as old-fashion and hopelessly set in our ways. They loved us, listened to us, respected us, but needed to choose their own path. Sometimes parenting was infuriating. So why did we keep doing it?                          We taught them how to walk.

For thousands of years humans have attempted to describe God. In the beginning God was best understood as the one in the storm. The storms were powerful, dangerous, unpredictable, yet they brought life-giving rain. Humans feared God because the showers of life could turn into the storms of death. As humans evolved so did their understanding of God. They began to speak of God’s personalities. Words like jealous, wrathful, all-powerful, demanding, even unfair entered the conversation. Then a Poet suggested God was caring, merciful, slow to anger, and steadfast in love. This was a radical thought, rejected by most, yet embraced by a wayward people trying to understand their pilgrimage from Egypt to The Promised Land to Babylon and finally back to Jerusalem. The Poet dared to ask, “How could God love us?”

The answer came in these words, “When Israel was a child I loved her. But the more I would call to Israel, the more she would turn to Baal. Yet how can I give her up. How can I let her die? I carried her in my arms. I lifted her to my breast and gave her milk. I taught her how to walk.”

Seminary exposed me to everything I would ever want to know about the doctrines of atonement, creation, incarnation, salvation and sin. But the poet from Hosea told me about God. In this marvelous book, God is described as a parent with memories that are both exuberant and painful. In Hosea, God shows anger and love, a broken heart and a spirit up lifted. Hosea gives us a God who understands separation, midnight feedings, tenderness, frustration and a desperate love which at any moment might be rejected.

I can remember more than once coming home in the evening and experiencing a self-righteous rant from my son or daughter. The topic hardly mattered. Deb and I were considered to be not only unreasonable but the worst parents in the history of the parenting. We knew the pain would pass by morning, but the sunrise was 12 hours away. The door would slam and the child would disappear into the safety of his or her room. I would look at Deb and ask why we signed up for this. And she would whisper, “We can’t give up. We taught them how to walk.”

Such is the love of God.

Amen.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

God Is So Good


Psalm 85; Hosea 1:2-10

 

        Of all the stories in the Bible my favorite might be Hosea and Gomer. On the surface the story seems to be a metaphor on marriage and infidelity.  But that explanation hardly touches the depth of this love affair. It is a parable of the broken covenant between God and God’s people. Hosea becomes a living symbol of this relationship by marrying a prostitute and becoming the father of her children. Gomer is no Pretty Woman. She never denies her unfaithfulness. She recklessly abandons Hosea and returns to her former life. Yet Hosea loves her. The central theme of this fable becomes an intriguing question. How far can Homer wander from Hosea before he gives up on her? We never discover an answer to this question because Gomer never discovers that boundary. She goes as far as she dares, yet Hosea still finds her and brings her home.

        If you have not read the story, I suggest it compares with the parable Jesus tells about the Prodigal Son. On the surface of both stories lingers the difficult question, “When should one give up on a child or a spouse?”  But that is not the only question being asked. Everyday separations involve two human beings, with two different stories, and multiple interpretations based on the bias of numerous witnesses. Both Hosea and the parable told by Jesus are asking serious questions concerning the relationship between humanity and God. There is no “he said, she said”. There is no wiggle room to question the guilt of Gomer or the Prodigal. The difference in the stories is only the prodigal seeks forgiveness. Gomer never wants to come home.   She claims to be miserable and has little desire to be constrained by Hosea’s benevolence. So the real question becomes, “Are there limits to God’s forgiveness?”

        Quite frankly that depends on which section of the Bible you choose to read. In the early stories, malcontents are not only punished, they are left in the wilderness to perish. Originally Israel was given a simple choice. Do what is right and live. Do what is sinful and die. Saul, the first King, was not only deserted by Yahweh, Saul falls on his own sword. Saul was replaced by David, the charming poet whom everyone loved. David represented the right and holy way to live. He was celebrated as God’s own son. But even David could be unfaithful. On one auspicious morning while looking down from his window at the wife of Urriah, David set in motion a plan by which he successfully broke commandments one, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. I could make an argument David also broke number five because he definitely embarrassed his mom. David was punished but no new king was appointed. David was still God’s guy.

        This confused the priest and prophets who were keeping score. Why was David still among the living? Why did the second son of David and Bathsheba become the next king? Was the relationship between Yahweh and the king different than the relationship between Yahweh and the King’s subjects? Some wanted to claim Yahweh as a God who was cool, calm, distant, and only desired to be exalted. But the Old Testament poets began to proclaim Yahweh as passionate, committed, and even jealous. They  introduced a new concept into Israel’s theological language.  Our God is faithful……………. regardless.

        One such poet was the person author of Psalm 85. Written during a time of internal peril, the poet turned to The One who has always been faithful. The poem begins, “O God, remember when You forgave Your people. Remember when You withdrew Your wrath. Can You now find it within Your gracious Spirit to forgive us? Surely You cannot be angry with us forever.

        This was a radical idea. The poet reminded God who God claimed to be. Sin is inevitable, but the poet identifies God as The One who initiates salvation. Instead of the God of Wrath who haunts the pages of Leviticus and Numbers we are introduced to the gracious mercy of a parent who cannot abandon the reckless child. Even as Israel is a willing prostitute to the gods of greed and authority, the God of the poet chases after Israel to bring her safely home. 

        Sometimes I believe our greatest sin is loss of memory. We are so good at holding grudges, particularly against folks we once loved. When someone angers or disappoints us, they have dared to disrupt our ordered lives. Our love turns to hurt and then into rage and we forget any redemptive quality we ever saw in our adversary. We have been wounded. We demand a confession. We desire punishment.

This is the way the oldest writers of the Bible believed a relationship with God worked. When Israel sinned they were expected to confess before undergoing harsh banishment from God’s grace. Examples given were slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon.  But the poets began to claim that their God never sat on the sidelines waiting for an apology. Their God remembered Israel before the sin. Their God actively pursued the sinner even at the risk of being disregarded. The poet claimed their God……. our God, remembered. The poet claimed Their God…..our God, sees beyond who we are at our worst moment and re-imagines who we might become. Reconciliation is not an impossible dream. It is the only acceptable alternative.

Listen again to the words of Psalm 85:

Steadfast love and fidelity meet.

Righteousness and peace kiss.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground.

Reconciliation will look down from the sky.

 

God remembers; God loves; God pursues; God forgives;

And God expects no less from us.

Every day, in places as far away as Nashville and Paris, poets string together words, hoping for that magical combination which will turn a lovers ear or melt a broken heart. Sometimes it works. Sometimes righteousness and peace do kiss. 

The poets know our lives are filled with too many storms where every battle seems more important than the last. We win some, we lose some, but we fight them all clinging to the illusion that God is on our side.

In our desire to be St. George we forget with each dragon comes not only a flame and smoke but silence.  That stillness might be the calm before the next storm. But it can also be the God given opportunity to embrace and kiss.

Righteousness desires reconciliation and so God pursues us. Shalom longs for wholeness, and so God heals us. But God refuses to dance alone. Sometimes we are the once who must reach out. Sometimes we are the ones who must remember and forgive. Sometimes we are the ones who must initiate a touch. Sometimes we are the ones who must awaken a kindred spirits.

Since I was a child I have sung Jesus Loves Me.  Sometimes I forget Jesus’ love expands beyond me. I ask myself how Jesus could possibly love a person I have come to hate.  That person is a despicable, lying piece of scum. To be more exact, he is exactly the way I must occasionally look to God.  But God remembers who I am capable being. God loves me, and my enemy……….regardless.

This is hard stuff. How can I forgive if forgiveness is not sought? Why did Hosea continued to pursue Gomer even after she said she was never coming home? The poet claims God remembers who we were and who we are capable of becoming once again. The text doesn’t make exceptions.

I know God loves me, regardless. But doesn’t it also mean God loves that person I really don’t care for, regardless.  I may not like it but it seems to be God’s choice.

Thanks be to God for a willingness to pursue both of us, no matter how ugly it might occasionally get. What I have a problem with is when God has the nerve to say to me, “Go and do likewise.”                     To God be the glory.  Amen.

                                                       

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Who Is Telling the Stories?


Luke 10:38-42
 
        One of my favorite quotes by Francis of Assisi is, “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.”  That is so much easier said than done.  We are a culture in love with words.  Turn on the TV and there is more advertising than programming. Music on the radio has been replaced with sports talk, political talk, entertainment talk and sometimes people just talking for the sake of talking. Motivational speeches have become a big time business.  Sometimes words are just used to occupy air that could be filled with blessed silence. We talk about the weather, we talk about our neighbors, we talk about our “favorite teams”, but more often than not, we just talk about nothing at all. With all the exaggeration, boasting, and deception linked to speech, it has become really hard to take someone for their word. And yet the concept of Word is the center piece of our faith.
        The prologue of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.”  How holy is a “word” today?  We understand that a word can be a powerful force, a convincing force, a manipulative force, a selfish force, but can it be holy? Do we believe that one holy interaction with God’s truth has the power to change our lives?  That is the question before us as we grapple with these five verses in the gospel of Luke.
It is a simple story.  Jesus was on the way to visit his two dear friends, Mary and Martha.  One woman represents the folks in this world who believe cleanliness is next to godliness, especially if the Son of God happens to be popping in for an evening meal.  If Jesus was coming by for a visit would you want an unclean rug to detract from his presence?  Of course not. You would put out the best linens to grace the table, the best wine to occupy the cup, the finest breads to appeal to his palate.  You would want everything to be perfect for the one who models perfection. And, you would want everyone on board, sweeping, dusting, setting the table, checking the food, doing all those things that makes a house hospitable to the one who visits.
Certainly four hands would have been better than two but two was all Martha had.  Once Jesus arrived, Mary ignored the pot roast, forgot to pour the wine, and discarded the cheese and crackers.  She slipped off her apron, sat at the feet of Jesus and all she did was listen.  Martha was beside herself.  What could be more important than those final preparations that make a good meal?   Perhaps only the mysterious power that comes from a word that lifts us to heights we never imagined possible.
Mary wasn’t lazy, Mary wasn’t shirking her duties, Mary simply was spellbound by the Word.  How often are we captured by something spoken?
The American Adventure has been blessed with great orators.  My list certainly might be different from yours but I recall three speeches, nearly from memory, that highlight everything that is breathtaking about America. 
Let’s begin with March 23rd, 1775, inside St. John’s Church in Richmond Virginia.  “Gentlemen may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace.  The war is already begun.  Is life so dear, or peace so sweet as to purchase it at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it Almighty God!  I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
Certainly you recall November 19, 1863, at a newly constructed cemetery outside of Gettysburg Pennsylvania. “It is for us the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have so nobly advanced.  We are to be dedicated to the great task before us and resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
And what about the words spoken August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.  Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.  I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’.”
Patrick Henry, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King each knew the power of the word and how to make their words eternal.  Could you imagine being in Richmond, or Gettysburg, or Washington DC just before one of these men took the stage and say to a friend, “Guest might be dropping by after the ceremony. I should run home and make sure the house is straight.”
When something of this magnitude happens you drop everything scheduled, you press forward and strain to hear every word, not just hoping, but rather knowing that something remarkable, something ageless, something that will inspire your children’s children is about to be spoken.  I have gone to St. John’s church in Richmond. I have visited that graveyard in Gettysburg. I have stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I went for one reason, to stand where those words were first spoken.  Once there, I understood those words not as “historic” but as visionary. They still ring with a freshness that defines every age.  They are holy words written on our souls.
When holy words are spoken, why wouldn’t we want to stop whatever we are doing and transfer our full attention to the possibility that those words might completely transform our lives?  Imagine Jesus coming to see you.  Would be your priority be a clean house or an open mind? Mary made her choice. She sat and listened as Jesus said, “Mary, God so loves the world that my father would do anything for your benefit.”  She heard him say, “Mary, you worry too much about things that are not really that important.  Look at how God cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.  Do you really think that God will not care for you, the most precious gem in all of creation?  She heard him promise, “Mary, someday this life will end, but do not be afraid.  I will go before you and prepare a place for you.  In my Father’s house there are many rooms.  One of them has been especially prepared for you.” 
Perhaps Jesus told Mary a story about a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, or a father who had two sons, or a shepherd who lost one of a hundred sheep, or of a great feast that had been prepared for the bride groom.  No matter which word was spoken, it was a word that caused Mary to follow Jesus to the cross, to the grave, and beyond.  It was a word that gave Mary hope and resilience.  It was a word that lived longer than the effects of a clean table or a dusted floor. 
I am not making light of the presence of Martha.  Where would a church be without the Martha’s that constantly practice acts of hospitality, the Martha’s that show up unannounced to care for the gardens, the Martha’s that struggle with church budgets, the Martha’s that take care of those little details that no one notices.  Churches cannot operate without Martha.  But the church would not exist without Mary.
The history of our great country cannot be told without remembering the oratory of the Henrys, Lincolns and Kings.  Likewise the faith our church cannot be understood only through acts of justice and mercy.  Someone needs to tell the stories.  There are a lot of Mary’s out there who need a word of hope, a word of grace, and a word of truth.  Therefore  I implore you, Listen to the Word, Speak the Word, Sing the Word, Do the Word. Become the Word.  Somewhere, Mary is listening.
Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Don't Ask the Question Unless You Know the Answer


Luke 10:25-37

 

        I have watched enough TV to know that if you are a lawyer you never ask a question unless you are certain what the answer will be. Obviously the lawyer in our text never watched Perry Mason. Can you imagine Perry Mason getting tripped up by not knowing exactly how his witness was going to respond? Certainly not. 

        The encounter between the lawyer and Jesus began quite innocently. It seems the lawyer wants to make sure Jesus is the real deal.  “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Maybe the lawyer thought Jesus was some off- the-wall charlatan selling magic beads and “Love Potion Number 9”. Jesus responded with his own question. “What is written in the law?” The lawyer, joyfully recited a verse he had learned as a child. “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

        Jesus responded. “Good for you. Your parents taught you well. If you follow this law you will live.” The trap had been set and the lawyer, forgetting the first rule of his profession, took the bait. “Jesus, just one more question. Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the best known and perhaps most misunderstood parable he ever told.

        If I should  ask the average person on the street to tell me what comes to mind when they hear the phrase Good Samaritan the most popular answer would be, “Someone who helps someone else.” Some might raise a question concerning “The Good Samaritan Law.” This is a piece of legislature stating if you stop on the road to assist someone and are injured, the insurance company does not have to compensate you.  In other words, if you consider yourself a Good Samaritan, you bear a risk. Actually this goes a long way in with keeping with the intention of the original story.

        Through the years we have lost our understanding of how radical this story actually was. Among law abiding, synagogue attending Jews in the time of Jesus, the phrase Good Samaritan was an oxymoron.  Samaritans were believed to be obnoxious half-breed heathens. Everyone knew they were thieves waiting for the chance steal from the rich, rape unsuspecting women, and sell their children off to the highest bidder.

        Since none of us share this kind of venom toward Samaritans, perhaps it would help if I told a modern version of the story. Once there was a man name John. He was a good man who had spent his entire life as a bricklayer. By the time John was 45 his body was beginning to break down. His back was an absolute mess. It was getting hard to even straighten up. John went to his local doctor and was prescribed pain pills. Well you can see where this is going. In less time than you might imagine John was addicted to various forms of opioids. No longer able to receive prescriptions, John tried buying them on the street.  A favorite place for drug dealers was across from the local hospital. John gathered all the money he could find and agreed to meet a couple guys after dark. Unfortunately the dealers had no intention of selling anything to John. They beat him up, took his money, and left him for dead.

        The first person who noticed John was a young intern. He had just pulled a twelve hour shift and was beyond exhaustion. His first instinct when he saw the man was to make sure he was OK. But then common sense took over. The intern rationalized the man was just another drunk. If he was still there in the morning, the intern would notify the hospital security.

        Later two nurses walked by. They heard John groaning and wanted to help but they were afraid that it might be some kind of trap. Fearing for their safety they decided to report the incident once they got to the hospital but then they had more urgent tasks which needed their attention.

        A third man walked by. He had recently been hired by the hospital to work on the maintenance crew. Luis was an undocumented refugee from El Salvador. The hospital was over- budget and understaffed so few questions were asked. Luis worked this part-time job at night and held a construction job during the day. When Luis noticed the man in the ally, he hesitated. To offer help would mean Luis would have to expose himself. The police might be brought in. Luis would risk not only losing his job but possibly be deported. He started to walk away on by and then stopped. He remembered his priest in San Salvador who never stopped asking the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The response was always. “The one who shows kindness.”

        Luis went back into the ally. He picked up John and took him into the emergency room. Immediately questions were asked. Luis got nervous. When the opportunity presented itself he slipped through the back door. He knew he could never come back to the hospital.  It was too risky. John never met the man who had saved his life.

        Kurt Vonnegutt captured the essence of this story when once asked what the future held in store for young folks. Vonnegutt responded, “Welcome to earth. It’s hot in the summer, cold in the winter. It is round, wet, and crowded. You might live to be 100 if you are unlucky. There is only one rule that really matters; you have got to be kind.”

        How often is kindness our primary motivation? The world of that young lawyer was probably just like our world today, a place driven by greed, competition, and what is best for me. Even our most ethically driven folk seem more concerned with rights more than forgiveness, with justice more than mercy, with equality more than compassion. Kindness is seen as a weakness, a character flaw. Oh I have no doubt we are kind to grandmothers and babies but about the babies and grandmothers who aren’t branches on our family tree?

        Now it was Jesus’ time to ask a question. The story is told, the lawyer wishes he had kept his mouth shut but the lesson was far from over. Jesus asked, “Know you tell me. Who was the neighbor?

        Our Presidential election is 500 days away. I will commit to the man or woman who pledges to Make America Kind Again.  I am patiently waiting for that candidate to throw their hat or purse into the ring.             TGBTG   Amen.