Sunday, June 9, 2019

A Tall Fragile Tale


Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21



I know it is Pentecost. Some of you wore red to remind me. After writing a new Pentecost sermon for 38 consecutive years, I have extinguished all creativity on that subject. It is the closest I will ever get to feeling like Leonard Cohen. He wrote “Hallelujah”, one of the greatest songs known to humankind. Unfortunately he kept adding verses to the original. By the time he got to verse 25 he had forgotten why he created the song in the first place. That is the way I feel about writing a 39th sermon about Pentecost.

Fortunately the Old Testament text is the Tower of Babel. A misreading of Genesis 11 would have us believe the languages of the world originated with a failed attempt to build a tower to heaven. Add to the mix the words from Peter’s Pentecost sermon, “Everyone understood in his own language”, and many preachers would have you believe Pentecost restored the language the Tower of Babel debacle destroyed. Fortunately for you I am not just any preacher.

This tall tale has its origins in the folklore of Babylon. The original begins with an innocent question, “Why do other cultures not speak Babylonian?”  The Babylonian answer was obvious. The language of the gods was spoken only by Babylonians. Those who helped with the building of the great ziggurats were the children of the god Marduk. They spoke the holy language. The others were scattered to the far regions. They were not allowed to utter the holy words.

The exiled residents of Jerusalem spoke Hebrew. They were quite proud of their language and heritage and had no desire to assimilate into the Babylonian culture. Some very clever writer heard the story of the ziggurats and created a response which mocked the efforts of the Babylonians. Listen to the story as told with a Hebrew voice.

Once upon a time everyone spoke the same language. They migrated from the east and came to the great Tigris-Euphrates basin. The people said to each other, “Let’s make a name for ourselves. We will build a city with a great tower. If we don’t we shall be scattered throughout the earth.” So they began to build. But finding stone was hard work, so they substituted bricks. Not wanting to take the time to make quality mortar, they substituted bitumen, a low grade tar. God looked down at the people creating a tower with sub-grade materials. God knew it was only a matter of time before the tower would collapse upon itself. Its foundation was sand, not rock.   God said, “I will go down and multiply their language so they will not be able to finish their foolishness.” Frustrated, the people left the city and scattered throughout the region. The unfinished tower was called Babel because God confused their language.

The re-telling of this story is so simplistically complex. That is what makes any story great. Let’s start with the name of the tower. In the original story the tower and city were called Babylon, which means, “Gateway to the Gods”. The residents of the city saw themselves as the center of the universe. They had victories over the Assyrians and Egyptians. The story in Genesis shortens the name to Babel, which in Hebrew means, “to confuse”.

Second, notice the material that was used to build the tower. It was second rate. When we put our best foot forward, amazing results abound. But when we cut corners, disasters abound. The same is true of our commitment to God. When we claim that we will live our lives as a holy sacrifice and then take shortcuts, it is amazing how quickly our holy pilgrimage gets sidetracked.

But I have saved the best for last. God said, “I will scatter them.” From the beginning of time humans have feared being scattered. It takes us out of our comfort zone. We might encounter folks different from us. We might have to learn a new language to communicate. Scattering makes us fearful, even hateful. At first glance scattering is horrifying. But what happens when we are all the same?

We have just celebrated the 75th anniversary of the landing at Normandy. Remember the ultimate goal of Nazi Germany? Hitler wanted to create a master race in which everyone had blue eyes and blond hair. Everyone would look like and think like their neighbor. But who landed at Normandy? The soldiers came from the UK, Canada, US, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer includes Protestants, Roman Catholics and Jews. Buried in that sacred ground are Whites, Hispanic, African-Americans and Native Americans. In other words, it was those who were scattered who brought down the Third Reich.

Genesis 10:32, the verse just before the telling of the Tower of Babel Story reads, “These are the families of Noah. They became scattered all over the earth to become nations.” The text reveals that the fear of scattering expresses a resistance to God’s purpose for creation. The tower, in both stories, was an attempt to resist a divine directive of celebrating diverse opinions. Isn’t humanity always at its best when a variety of folks come together with a smorgasbord of ideas to solve difficult problems? Aren’t faulty solutions often the results of a lack of original thinking? Imagine if one person in the story had said, “Where I come from, stone last a lot longer than bricks.”

Believe it or not that brings me back to Pentecost. Peter was a fisherman with an extremely limited viewpoint. He stands before a crowd in Jerusalem, which is the center of his universe. But he remembers Jesus saying, “One day we are going to rebuild the Temple, but it won’t look anything like the old one.” Peter has a story that needs to be told and a vision he wants to share. Peter has no desire to go backwards. The resurrection has revealed God has chosen all of creation, not just one people.  But Peter is limited by his history, his culture, even his faith. Then his eyes focus. He is surrounded by folks who have been scattered. They came from Partha, Medes, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, Rome and Arabia.  Peter speaks only one language and probably had a horrible Galilean accent.  He is a hick from the sticks. Who cared what he had to say? The only thing Peter had going for him was he trusted God. Slowly Peter spoke and each person heard in his or her own language.

 This isn’t the creation of a new language. It’s like being at the UN with head sets. So listen in on what Peter said. “God has poured out the Spirit upon you in order that you might see visions and dream dreams.” Peter had the courage to announce, “What I have got to share is bigger than all of us. It can’t be limited to Jerusalem. It can’t be restricted to one voice. It is going to take every one of you to scatter throughout the world and spread the good news that God still blows a holy wind into our emptiness.”

The folks that day in Jerusalem may never have heard of Jesus but they had experienced chaos. They may not have known of the young prophet who had been killed, but they witnessed a voice filled with joy.  They might  not been raised in the religion of Moses, but they now heard of a God who offered hope instead of despair, visions instead of nightmares, life instead of death.  And they scattered, not out of fear, not out of self-preservation, not out of disbelief. They scattered because they wanted to run home and tell their families, and their friends, and even those folks they didn’t like very much what they had heard. They scattered, because the breath of God touched their souls, and they were not afraid.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. 

Sing it with me.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Amen.

 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

They Just Won't Shut Up!



Acts 16:16-34


        Paul was annoyed. I find that amusing because Paul has been annoying folks for over 2,000 years. Paul was upset because he was trying to have a meaningful conversation with the good folks of Philippi and every time he attempted to speak a young woman would scream, “These men are slaves of the most high God.” You would think Paul would have applauded such an introduction. But the problem was she never quit yelling. Every time Paul tried to speak, the woman interrupted. She was like a warm up band that refused to get off the stage. She would not shut up. The more she yelled, the madder Paul got. Finally Paul had enough. Suspecting she was possessed, Paul ordered the evil spirit to leave the girl. She immediately became mute and Paul proceeded to preach the gospel. End of story? No, it was only the beginning.      

        It seems the woman was born with the ability to tell the future.  She must have been quite good at it. A group of men had invested in her skills and were making a small fortune off her gift. Was it ethical for them to take advantage of her? Probably not. Was Paul out of line in shutting down their source of income? Notice how everything is so clear until there is a clash between morality and commerce. Regardless of the conclusions we draw, the men who owned the woman were furious. One minute they owned a cash cow. The next minute her milk had dried up. She was useless to them and they were furious. Now they wouldn’t shut up! They went to the local authorities and demanded restitution for their loss of income. Their complaint was quite simple, “These men are different from us and they are not abiding by our laws and customs. They are a menace to our way of life. We need to lock them up.”        

The magistrates agreed. Paul and Silas were stripped, beaten, and thrown into jail. Only Paul and Silas were now the ones who wouldn’t shut up. Once in jail they began praying and singing. It was after midnight and they were making such a racket no one in the jail could get any sleep. Then suddenly there was an earthquake. The walls of the prison collapsed. The shackles fell off all the prisoners. Now it was the jailer who wouldn’t shut up. He wailed, “Everyone has escaped. The magistrates will have my job. They will rebuild the prison and make me the first occupant. Someone give me a sword. Let me end my life right now.”

Paul interrupted his rant. “We are all here.” The jailer looked around and realized no one had left. He was overwhelmed with relief. Looking at his battered prisoners with more than curiosity he asked, “How can I get what you have got?” Then he took the prisoners into his home.

Such a cast of characters: a woman screaming epitaphs, businessmen screaming for profits, a jailer screaming for his life, and Paul and Silas praying very loudly. So who was the subject of Paul’s prayers? At first glance the answer seems obvious. Paul and Silas had almost been beaten to death. They obviously were giving thanks just to be alive. Or were they? I think Paul and Silas were praying for the woman, the owners, the magistrate, the folks who beat them, and the jailer who imprisoned them.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s during the civil rights movement members of the cause spent a lot of time in jail. This was where the greatest demonstration of faith and resistance took place. Folks who signed up to march were not just taught how to peacefully resist. They were taught to pray loudly.  A favorite catchphrase that filtered between the cells was, “Pray like Paul and Silas”. Everyone knew what this meant. You didn’t pray for your release. You prayed for the police. You prayed for the person who had dragged you through the streets. You prayed for the children who had spit on you. You prayed for the jailer who turned the key to your cell. You prayed without ceasing for those who hated you. You prayed late into the night. You prayed long and hard. You refused to shut up.  Silent prayer might be good for the soul, but prayers that break the sound barrier rock the foundations of a corrupt society.

So how is your prayer life? Do you pray out loud? Do you pray at all? Do you pray for yourself? Do you pray for your friends? Do you pray for your enemies? Do you pray for injustices? Do you pray that things will just stay the same?

        What would have happened if Paul and Silas had never prayed? Would there have been an earthquake? Would there have been a conversion of the jailer? Who knows? A question like that is beyond my pay grade. But I can share this.  I like to think of prayer as a solitary light that disturbs my darkness. So should I pray louder and disturb the darkness of others? Does praying out loud liberate or infuriate?   I imagine the men of commerce just wanted Paul to shut up?  But what about the jailer? What about the woman who lost her voice? What did they desire to hear?

        Maybe prayer is more than a solitary light. Maybe prayer is the pulse of life. If prayer is our confirmation of God’s existence then doesn’t prayer become our initial connection with the rest of God’s creation? How will the rejected woman, or the jailer, and particularly our enemies hear us if we don’t pray loudly and joyfully, and without ceasing?

        I know what you are thinking. We are Presbyterians. We are God’s Chosen Frozen. We pray quietly, respectfully, humbly, reverently, or we don’t pray at all.

        Maybe that’s why women continue to be abused? Maybe that’s why too often commerce is chosen over morality? Maybe that’s why frequently the customs of society don’t reflect the principles of God? Can you imagine what might happen if we started praying Very Loudly For Our WORLD?

        It might start bringing down some walls of oppression.

        To God be the Glory. Amen

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Remembering Those Without Names


Joshua 8:18-25; John 14:27

 

        The most sobering walk I ever take occurs when I visit our national capital.  A favorite stroll which includes the Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington Memorials is purposefully interrupted by a detour to the Vietnam Wall. I slowly and respectfully walk past 58,320 names etched into black granite. 58,320 lives….. 58,320 stories….. 58,320 tears wept each time we remember.   For folks of my generation just the word Viet Nam stimulates conversations filled with both confusion and delusion. 45 years after the signing of the Paris Accords, like the monument itself, Vietnam remains an unhealed wound, particularly to many of the families of those 58,320. The wall insures their names will never be forgotten. Tomorrow wreaths of remembrance will be placed throughout our nation. I pray we also remember those whose names will never be etched in granite.

        Despite attempts by poets like Tennyson to glorify combat, war is a raging inferno inspired by fear and duty.  It makes boys old men. Is war justified? Should war be celebrated? Certainly you have grappled with those questions.  Is war holy? That depends on which book of the Bible you choose to read.

        The Old Testament was created over a period of a thousand years. Stories which may or may not have been factual were shared around the campfire until eventually priests and scribes transcribed them in scrolls and the stories were declared holy. What we often forget is that some ancient truths were neither universal nor everlasting. Holy Scripture corrects itself. Today it is OK to eat ham sandwiches. Women are allowed to worship with men. Slaves no longer occupy our balcony.  Rules for waging holy war during the time of Joshua radically changed by the time Micah served as a prophet of the Lord.  

        We have all sung about Joshua and the battle of Jericho. It is an ancient story told by a culture which believed it was sinful to be merciful. The Israelites entered the Promised Land. God proclaimed their venture holy and declared there was to be no trace left of the original inhabitants of the land.  On the seventh day the army of Israel marched around the city seven times, they blew their trumpets, and the walls “came a’tumbling down”. The slaughter began.  Hear the word of the Lord. “They killed every man and women in the city. Then they killed the livestock and burned the city.  Rahab and her family were spared because she had hid the Hebrew spies who had earlier entered the city.”

        But one of the soldiers, Achan, kept some of the gold for himself. In the next battle against the people of Ai the Israelites were defeated because of Achan’s sin. But Ai’s victory was only temporary. God said to Joshua, “You are to destroy Ai. Nothing is to be left.” A second battle takes place and to quote Joshua, “Eight thousand men, women, and children were slaughtered by the swords of the Israelites.” In ancient Israel that is the way war was conducted because that is the way the cultures that surrounded Israel conducted war. No one expected mercy from the Assyrians or the Babylonians and none was given.

        Enter Micah, and then Isaiah, and finally Jeremiah. From Joshua to King Josiah the implementation and destruction of war was never questioned. It was a sacred adventure. The names of the warriors were etched in the Holy Scrolls. When the names were read the people gave thanks to God for the heroes that protected the nation. But then Micah raised a question concerning the holiness of war. Isaiah prayed the next king would favor peace over conquest. Jeremiah cried out that no one remembered the innocent women and children slaughtered when the warriors went to war. The words of the prophets fell on deaf ears. But they were written down and remain a witness to those whose names have been forgotten.

        Throughout the years, as civilizations have allegedly progressed, philosophers have struggled with rules of engagement. As any who have served in the armed forces know, the Geneva and Hague conventions are historical rules aimed at limiting the overreaching brutality of mortal combat. The outline for these rules was created by Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century monk. Aquinas declared war must have a just cause, must be the last resort, must be declared by proper authorities, and must be responsible for noncombatants. Unfortunately as history records, war is not a sport brought to a conclusion through the blowing of a whistle. War quickly emerges into a moral fog in which truth and trust are the early casualties.

        The victims of this fog are the ones we honor tomorrow. Some have their names etched in stone. Some have been forgotten. Those we remember heard the call of a nation and because of their sense of duty, or patriotic pride, or fear, or cultural pressure, or a combination of all of the above, lost their lives. We honor their sacrifice.

        But the forgotten also pay an eternal cost. In the last ten years civil wars in Africa have claimed ten civilians for every combatant. This is not a recent phenomenon. In 1898 Mark Twain the humorist was not funny when reflecting on a possible conflict with Spain. Remembering our Civil War he wrote, “We will lay waste to humble homes with a hurricane of fire wringing the hearts of unoffending widows with unavailing grief leaving their children to wander hungry and unfriended through the waste of their desolated lands.”

(Stop)

        I thank God that one day out of 365 has been set aside to remember the sacrifice of every man and woman whose name has been etched in black granite.

        I thank God that on this day prophets like Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Twain remind us of the victims of war whose stories are often forgotten or dismissed.

        But most of all I give thanks for the words of Jesus who said, “Peace I give you. I do not give you the peace of the world. Do not let your hearts be afraid.”

        How often in the annals of history has the prelude of war been the shrill voice of those preaching fear and anxiety? How often could war been avoided if those voices had been calmed by offers of forgiveness or attempts at reconciliation? The peace offered us by the world too often results in the building of granite walls.  The peace offered by Christ breaks down walls.

        On this Memorial Weekend let us honor the dead. Let us remember the names etched in stone and the names forgotten. Then let us work for peace, not as the world desires it, but a peace that transcends the evil intentions of anxiety and fear.   

        In the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace, Amen.   

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Stories, Not Arguments, Change Lives


Acts 11:1-18

“Stories, not arguments, change lives”

 

        The Apostle Peter was not only a great disciple, he was a pretty good Jew. Both religiously and culturally, he was observant of Jewish Law. Peter was a perfect example of how religious and cultural beliefs are often homogenized to create dangerous habits which we bless as holy.

        For some very good reasons, the cultures of the Middle East followed similar food laws. Even today, one would not offer a ham sandwich to a Jew or a Muslim. The reason for this was a dietary reality which evolved into a religious custom. Spoiled meat makes one sick. In ancient times, most folks in the Middle East had not developed the technique to preserve certain meats such as pork. Therefore it was believed if pork made you sick it must be sinful to eat it. The fact that the Greeks and Romans had learned to correctly cure pork had very little bearing on this ancient Jewish custom. They were gentiles. What could they possibly know anything about the mind of God?

        Another curiosity concerning the Jews is all males were circumcised at birth. This was done to properly identify the child as a member of God’s community. There were no exceptions. In order to be a Jew, one must be circumcised. This action was understood to have been commanded by God but perhaps this “command” also came with a great deal of cultural pressure. Unlike Christians, who are commanded by Christ to baptize the world, Jews have never aggressively involved themselves in evangelism. Courting gentiles was seen as a detriment to the purity of their culture. Besides, how many non-Jews would want to go through this initiation?

        Peter, a circumcised, non-pork eating Jew, was struggling with both the commandment of Jesus and his cultural upbringing which suggested such as action would be against the will of God. Members of the church in Jerusalem debated the nature of this new movement. Would converts become an extension of their Jewish faith or were they something altogether different? Could followers of Christ still remain Jewish? The debates raged into the night. Paul seemed determined to take his story of conversion to Jews living in the Gentile world. What was to stop Greeks and Romans from desiring to hear Paul’s good news?  Where on earth was the new church headed?

        In order to escape the debate, Peter made a trip to Joppa. There he had an amazing dream. He saw heaven opening up and a feast being laid before him. Only the food offered was not lox and bagels. God offered a banquet of pork and all other kinds of unclean meats. Peter protested, only to hear God say, “What God made clean, you must not profane.”

        Peter awoke greatly puzzled by the dream, but only for a moment. Men appeared at his door claiming they had been sent to ask Peter to follow them to Caesarea and meet with a prominent Roman who wanted to know about Jesus. Ignoring his traditions, Peter followed the men, met with Cornelius, and testified to him about Christ. That day Cornelius asked that his whole family be baptized. Peter, remembering his dream, baptized the uncircumcised gentile and the rest of his family.

Then Peter made a bee line to Jerusalem. Finding the council still engaged in debate over their mission to Gentiles, Peter quieted the crowd and told them his story. He ended it by saying, “Who was I to hinder God?”

A hush fell over the crowd. Then they praised God saying, “God has given life even to the Gentiles.”    (stop)

I believe, more often than not, stories, not arguments, change lives. Every culture has the habit of forming their beliefs out of its tradition. That’s why conversion from those traditions is so hard. We have all the facts and sometimes even Bible verses to support our cultural conclusions. And then we have a dream or hear a story that makes us reconsider what is holy.

Some of you are old enough to remember when only men could be ordained as ministers in the Presbyterian Church.  In 1965, Hanover Presbytery ordained Rachel Henderlite as a minister of Word and Sacrament. I remember being a bit outraged over the fact that a woman could be a preacher. I asked my father what qualified her to be a minister. He started out with her qualifications. “She is a graduate of Agnus Scott. She received a Masters from New York Theological Seminary. She has a Ph.D from Yale. She teaches Applied Christianity at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education and has written five books.”

I interrupted him, “But she is still a woman!”

“And so is your Aunt Evelyn.”

My dad did not need to repeat the story of my aunt becoming the first woman elder in Blue Ridge Presbytery. He did not have to remind me of the difficulties she encountered once she was awarded this distinction.  I knew my aunt well. I knew her as an intelligent, faith filled woman who was a blessing to her church. In my eyes no one was more qualified to be an elder than my Aunt Evelyn. I stepped back from my previous position, convinced it was OK for Rachel Henderlite to follow in the footsteps of my aunt.

That might have been my first conversion, but it was not my last. Being a proud white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, I am not ashamed of my heritage. I am not a racist. None of us are, at least in our own eyes. Logically I knew all men and women were created equal. But deep down I knew God had created me a cut above anyone else.  The proof of my ignorance came at church where everyone looked just like me.

In college I developed a relationship with a fellow student named Ballard Lee. Ballard had completed two years of college before being drafted. After two years in the Army, including a tour in Viet Nam, Ballard enrolled as a junior at King. Ballard was 6’7’’ and weighed around 240 pounds. He played power forward on King’s basketball team. Having become somewhat enlightened in my racial stereotyping, I was delighted when Ballard came to King because now we had two blacks starting on our team. I went to all the games, home and away, as the Tornadoes ran through its conference schedule. One day on our way to class I said to Ballard, “You are a man among boys on the basketball court.” He stopped, placed his huge black hand on my shoulder, smiled and said, “I am a man on any court. I think you are the one who needs to grow up.”

Those words were not spoken out of anger or resentment. They were words of truth spoken in love by someone who understood God a whole lot better than I. Ballard knew if I was going to travel God’s road I needed to revisit some of my presumed truths.

Jesus said to the disciples, “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” Karen Armstrong in her book The Spiral Staircase notes that in most religious traditions, faith is not about belief but about practices. There are so many things that we practice as Christians that might not have anything at all to do with Christ. Being a good Christian I once questioned the credibility of folks who didn’t happen to be male or white. I judged rather than loved, causing me to say and think some rather foolish things. I give thanks for stories that cleansed and corrected my vision.

I suspect we all have our cultural idiosyncrasies that keep us from fully embracing our neighbors with the love of God. While some churches in our denomination continue to be embroiled in arguments concerning sexual orientation, this congregation has a story that has helped to define us as the Church of Jesus Christ. Rather than being compromised by a shallow reading of a Levitical law, we embraced the command to love one another.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of identifying folks as “gentiles” we could encounter them as Christ has always encountered us? Imagine greeting each other without prejudgment, without cultural bias, without suspicions.  Imagine simply greeting others with the peace of Christ.

I know we live in a dangerous world. There are a lot of crazy folks out there. But sometimes it is our preconceived godly practices that lights the fuse of anger or hate. Or in the words of my friend, “Sometimes we are the ones who need to grow up.”

For the life of me I can’t remember Jesus saying, “They will know you are Christians if you believe the right things.” I seem to remember what Jesus said was, “Love each other, as I have loved you, and everyone will know you are my disciples.”                                     

                                                 To God be the glory.  Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Walking Through the Darkest Valley


Psalm 23:4

 

        I have always had heroes. My first was Ted Williams. Some of you might remember the name. He played left field for the Boston Red Sox. Somewhere around the age of six I became convinced that no game was more perfect than the one whose objective was to go home. Some folks loved Mickey Mantle. The ones with the best eye for talent adored Willie Mays. But I fell in love with Ted Williams. We had nothing in common. He was left-handed, born in San Diego, and stood six feet three. I was a right-headed Georgian who was almost three foot six.  It hardly mattered. When Williams swung a bat it was poetry in motion. I was ten when he retired and his absence left a hole in my life. It was later I learned Williams had a darkness in his soul that dimmed the brilliance of his career.

        It took me a couple of years to get over my love of Ted Williams. I courted Luis Aparicio until I learned he didn’t spell his first name correctly. Ernie Banks played for the wrong team. No real Cardinal fan could root for a Cubbie. Eventually my heroes moved from the sporting field to the political arena. In 1968, in my youthful heart, no one seemed a more perfect candidate for the presidency than Bobby Kennedy. He was young, spoke a language I could understand, and had moved from the shadow of his brother. Bobby even had a law degree from the University of Virginia. But his ascension to the top of the political spectrum was destroyed by an assassin’s bullet. A darkness in America’s soul extinguished what might have been.

        That is the problem with heroes. We embrace them in the light of day. They rise beyond our expectations only to fall victim to the darkness, often leaving us wounded.

        I suspect David grew up worshiping heroes. While he was destined to be a king, he was born a shepherd. I imagine one of David’s early heroes was King Saul. The king was a giant of a man. When fully dressed for battle Saul cut a figure anyone would admire. But David would soon discover his hero was flawed. Saul desperately fought and finally succumbed to his inner demons. Like Ted Williams, the king was defined not by his valor on the field but his insecurities when surrounded by the darkness.

        Perhaps David considered Jonathan to be among his heroes. The son of Saul was young, dashing, and David’s best friend. Everyone believed Jonathan would be a worthy successor to his father. But like Kennedy, Jonathan was struck down. He died in a battle against the despised Philistines. The deaths of Jonathan eased David’s path to the throne. But it left him wary of the power of darkness.

        I grew up imagining David the shepherd boy composing the 23rd Psalm. Sitting alone with his flocks he would seem to have had ample time to compose lyrical poems.  All of the components of the verse are before us. Green pastures and still waters are his playground. At night dark valleys stand in opposition to the safety of his sheep. But then we encounter verse five. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” These words transcend the naiveté of a young boy counting the hours until sunset.

        I now believe David composed the Shepherd’s Psalm as a reflection on a long and arduous life. He had not desired the throne but once anointed he fought to secure it. Like his childhood heroes, David was not without flaws. He committed adultery and murder, excusing both actions as permissible.  He struggled with friends and family members. He disappointed those who loved him the most. At times he was at odds with God. Yet despite his tragedies, David experienced mercy.

        I struggle with reconciliation, particularly if the person who has fallen from grace was a former hero. Ted Williams’s career batting average was .344. He was the last player to hit over .400 in a season. Yet his temper left him hopelessly flawed.  In my adolescent world where everything was hopelessly black and white, mercy was not on option.

        I encountered the same blindness when reflecting on the turbulent year of 1968. Bobby Kennedy was not the only young person slain by an assassin’s bullet that year. Martin Luther King was only 39 years old. Both were murdered by a toxic hate in our society that enflamed the unbalanced judgment of two killers seeking inglorious fame. My anger was not limited to Sirhan Sirhan or James Earl Ray. My forgiveness has yet to be bequeathed on those participating in that dialogue of hatred.

        That is why I cling to the 23rd Psalm. It was never intended to be a poem of comfort read at the graveside. It is the confession of a tamed cynic. It is never easy to deal realistically with the moral confusion of the day. The same could be said of the chaotic days of David’s reign. He was King. He could have declared history be written from the perspective of his pen. Yet he remembered the darkness. His first hero was plunged into chaos from the weight of the throne. David’s first son plunged Israel into anarchy because of Absalom’s desire for the throne. David’s mortal sins were excused because he sat on the throne.  David desired still waters but his reign was marked by turbulence. So he writes, “I will walk into the valley of darkness but I will not fear because God will be with me.”

        Childhood heroes cannot mend our brokenness because they are also flawed. Perfect societies cannot birth utopia because an ideal social order has never existed. We can rationalize our fears, we can lay blame on others but that will not heal us. Knowing the cost would be tremendous David chose only one companion to accompany him on his walk into the darkness. This walk did not change David’s sketchy past, but it did transform his future. Such is the power of God’s mercy.

        The old king, no longer a worshiper of heroes but a hero worshipped, prepared a dinner attended by his enemies. Imagine sitting down to break bread with folks who want to kill you. In attendance was a traitorous general, a former wife who hated him, and a son who believed he deserved to be king. Each had loved David, but no longer. Each expected to be dead before the evening festivities had concluded.  But this aging king finally understood the meaning of mercy and grace. David had spent his entire life following heroes and thirsting for power. In the end all David desired was the mercy of God and the forgiveness of those he had wounded. It was not his exploits in battle that secured the legacy of King David. It was his revelation that people cannot co-exist if they refuse to display acts of mercy toward each other.

        An ancient man, weary with intrigue but full of life turned to those who hated him and whispered, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us the rest of our days if we dwell in God’s presence …….. together.”

        May we go and do likewise.                Amen.

 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Dancing in the Dark


Psalm 30

 

        Most of the time, I love the darkness. On any given night, in our little piece of heaven, the stars give adequate light for a midnight stroll. But last Sunday evening was not one of those times. I had just watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones where the combined forces of four royal houses were making a desperate last stand against the Army of the Dead. Hero after hero died trying to stop the unholy terror only to be resurrected into the enemy’s force. It was both thrilling and horrific. And then it was over. I clicked off the TV and made my way to the bedroom to recover from an exhausting day. I knew I would dream. I knew the dreams might not be pleasant, but I was not prepared for what was about to happen. I was awakened from my deep sleep by a shrill voice. “Louie, there is an animal on the deck.”

        Deb had only watched ten minutes of Game of Thrones so I knew her imagination was not the result of some TV fantasy. I was also aware that Deb does not share my love of everything dark.  Less than thrilled, I got out of bed, grabbed a flash light and shone it out on the deck. I heard a noise and figured it was a squirrel. I retreated to my bed and drifted back to my dreams of dragons and monsters. Again, in the midst of my nightmare, I was hysterically interrupted, “It’s not a squirrel. It’s a bear. Do something.”   (stop)

        Fantasy can be eliminated by turning on the lights. But in life, the lights are already on. I have yet to discover a Psalm that serves as an antidote to a bear in the backyard. But I do believe the Psalms have a way of helping us through nightmares that may or may not be dreams.

        O Lord you rescued my soul from death. You restored me to life from among those who would destroy me.

Like any great literature most biblical stories dance from tragedy to redemption. An enslaved people escape death through parted waters. A bald lover rediscovers his strength. A boy slays a giant with a slingshot. A crucified rabbi is resurrected.  A first round loser wins a national championship. Okay UVA’s victory was not biblical, but it certainly was a manifestation of how the dawn is always before us if we have the courage to open our eyes.

        The truth is, most days a bear is not in the back yard. Deb and I have lived in Stoney Creek eight years, four months and five days. To be exact we have been here 3,221 nights. 3220 of them have been bear free. The same came be said for most of nightmares. I spend a lot of time with folks in the hospital. Let’s face it, we are getting older and some of our parts are starting to break down. You would be surprised how often in a private moment a person facing death has said to me, “God has been so good to me.” This is not a lament of resignation. It is the courage to speak the truth. What greater faith can there be than in the midst of death to sing a song of redemption?

        The Psalmist sang, You have turned my mourning into dancing. You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. My soul will praise you and I will not be silent. I will give thanks to you forever.

        In a world which surrounds itself with drama, the Psalmist is asking us to sing a song of remembrance. Psalm 30 could have been sung by someone who woke up to discover the bear had left. But I think there are far more reasons to sing. Remember your first friend. Remember turning a double play. Remember your first kiss. Remember your first job offer. Remember smelling the ocean. Remember your first child’s birth. Remember climbing Humpback with your daughter. Remember watching the sun rise.  Remember hearing Eva Cassidy sing. Remember the silence that breaks into our noise. Remember holy words that break into our discontent.

        O God, shine forth into the darkness of our night.

        Melt the frost that encompasses our soul.

        Wake us into the dawn of a new day,

        Fill us with colors that we have too long ignored.

        Turn our mourning into dancing.

        Turn our screaming into singing,

        Help us remember how good You have been to us.

 

                                                Amen.

 

 

       

Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Sunday after Easter Sermon


Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

 

        Did you notice how packed the sanctuary was last Sunday? We had folks hanging from the rafters. There were children, young people, and great grandparents. From birth to death we had it covered. I had emails this week declaring the service was amazing. Folks loved the choir. Folks loved the children’s moment. Folks loved Bob’s benediction, and my mother loved the sermon. It was an unbelievable experience …….. or was it. If everything was so great, why didn’t they all come back?

Every Christmas and Easter the church is partially betrayed by its own message. During Christmas we shout, “Joy to the World, Jesus has come to save you”. On Easter we sing, “The strife is o’er, the battle done, Jesus has saved me.” Then the Sunday after Easter we get around to telling the whole truth. Jesus and world are still wounded.

Leave it to the Gospel of John to give us our most powerful post resurrection stories. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the gospel message is told through parables that bemuse and sometimes confuse the everyday audience. John introduces us to Nicodemus, a scholar blinded by his personal black hole. John shares the story of a Samaritan woman who drinks from the cup of a Jew. In John we are perplexed by Mary and Martha, startled by Lazarus, and left wishing Jesus had given a different answer to Pilate’s request for truth.

John’s post resurrection account centers on two disciples. The first is Thomas. We know very little about this man. He is hardly mentioned in any of the gospels before the crucifixion but manages steps forward in large way after the resurrection. He entered this life known as Thomas the Twin. He left it remembered as the one who doubted.

You know the story. You have heard me and other preachers tell of the one disciple who refused to believe Jesus was alive until he had visual proof. We end the story on a wonderful note, “Blessed are all that did not have to see the wounds and yet believed. Go forth in the knowledge that Jesus has saved you.”

But what if Thomas saw more than the wounds of Jesus? What if Thomas, for the first time, saw the frailty of Thaddeus? What if Thomas witnessed the brokenness of John? Perhaps he saw the insecurity of Andrew or the brashness of James. Maybe he felt the nervousness of Matthew or the fear of Phillip. I wonder if he saw the burden piercing Peter’s heart. Jesus wasn’t the only one with exposed wounds. Thomas was transformed when he realized that events of the past few days marked a new beginning.

The gospel writer of John has more than one book in the New Testament. Scholars also believe he is responsible for the Book of Revelation. The book opens with these words, “Jesus loved us and freed us through his wounds.”

Everyone loves the Book of Revelation.  It has this mystical presence that invites us into a literary world where anyone who knows it is by name becomes an expert. A number of us are beginning a year long ride through the Bible.  We meet the second and fourth Wednesday at 7:00.   You can start at the beginning. You can pick and choose which books you want to read. You can wait until we get to the New Testament. One thing I know for sure. When the class on the Book of Revelations is announced, a lot of new faces will show up. I really don’t know why everyone becomes so excited. The Book of Revelation reveals little of what most folks think they will find.

The Book of Revelation doesn’t tell us when the world will end. It didn’t predict the Crusades, the Russian Revelation, Ayatollah Khomeini, or the Cubs winning the World Series. What the book does is share a goal of residing in a place where all people are made completely whole. Is that heaven? Or is it even more?

When the Old Testament speaks of a new heaven it includes the promise of a new earth. We are not seen as individuals working against each other to get to the top of the mountain but rather as a community living and caring for one another. It may surprise you but the concept of survival of fittest is not a Biblical term. Listen to John’s prophecy, “We are freed by his wounds to become a new kingdom.”

The death of Jesus momentarily destroyed his band of disciples. They ran toward seclusion fearing for their lives. Every wound, every insecurity was exposed. Then Jesus arrived. Ten of the eleven witnessed his presence. They were elated, hardly aware of what any of this meant. Thomas the skeptic, Thomas the doubter, had not been in the room for the original triumphant entry. When Jesus arrived a second time Thomas’ eyes are open in ways he never imagined. Made whole by the presence of Christ, Thomas witnessed not only his wounds, but the wounds of those who surrounded him.

This is the new heaven and earth proclaimed by Isaiah and understood by the writer of John. It is a place where we not only witness the wounds of others, we become part of the healing process. To use a phrase attributed to Henri Nouwen, Thomas became a wounded healer. For the first time he saw beyond himself. For the first time he not only understood the message of Jesus, he understood the intention of God. As God heals us, we in turn are commissioned to heal one another.  It is not just about me. It is about us.

Perhaps I am over-thinking this phenomenon that happens every Christmas and Easter but it makes me wonder about those folks who grace our doorsteps and where they go the rest of the year?  Is it simply an old habit? Did they go to church as a kid so for the sake of memories they drop by on high holidays? If that is the case what is it that they received on their once a year check-up. We proclaimed the resurrection. We assured them God has conquered death. We promised when their time on earth is finished, God will save them. The problem is Easter appears to be all about tomorrow, but what do we offer for today?

We live in an amazing world. We can create in an hour what our grandparents labored for months to produce. We control the temperature so that is always 72 degrees. We don’t work on the farm and still have eggs for breakfast and meat for dinner. We have placed our faith in technology and economic systems and our faith has been rewarded. And yet, with all our creative powers there is still the potential for self-destruction. I look at young couples with two plus children. They hold down two jobs. They try to do everything to make the world perfect for their children. They trust in the latest convenience yet continue to live wounded, exhaustive lives. I look at single folks searching for a community. They have no children and therefore often viewed as incomplete. They come to church on Easter Sunday hoping to hear some good news. We oblige by proclaiming God has conquered death. They sing the songs, drink the grape juice, and leave triumphant, only to wake up on Monday morning…….. empty.

Maybe we would serve our whole community best if on Easter Sunday instead of preaching the resurrection and the rewards in the next world, we talked about the wounds of Jesus, and the wounds of Thomas, and the wounds of Matthew, and Thaddeus, and Andrew, and John, and James, and the rest of us.  Maybe we would serve the world best if on Easter we lifted up the second resurrection story told in the gospel of John.

Jesus meets Peter by the seashore. Peter is overcome with guilt and wounded to the soul. He can’t sleep and he certainly can’t face Jesus. Peter’s denial had left irreparable scar.  Jesus said to him, “Peter, do you love me?”

Peter responded, “Lord, I love you more than life itself.”

Jesus whispered, “Then feed my sheep.”

When we who are wounded become healers, we see beyond our fears, and insecurities, and even sins. When we find the courage to be a wounded healer, we discover salvation is not just about me. The gospel lived is about hearing another’s stories and recognizing their wounds that fester on Monday morning. If all we do is proclaim the resurrection, to the casual listener it may appear we are not interested in today.  But if we expose our wounds, if we open our hearts, if we talk about our doubts, and then we listen …….. we might strike a chord with those are losing hope. Who knows, they might even find a reason to come back the next Sunday morning.

To God be the Glory.    Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Somebody's Calling Your Name


John 20:1-18

 

        Two or three times a week I receive e-mails suggesting I look at some phenomenal event recorded on the internet.  There is no such thing as a private moment anymore.  Even professional basketball players are texting comments to their “face book” during halftime.  I guess I should comb my hair just in case someone is recording this sermon.

        Imagine if the Easter event had happened in the 21st century.  In this age of mass media, CNN would have camped out in the cemetery and Anderson Cooper would have entered the tomb at first light.  On Monday Jesus would have begun the morning on the “Today Show” and ended the day singing ditties with Jimmy Fallon.  The news of the resurrection would have been no secret whatsoever.  Two months after Easter, CBS would have aired a made for TV movie titled, “Alive”.  The pre-airing commercials would tease us by guaranteeing it was based on a real story.

But that is not the way it happened.  There are eye witness accounts, each contradicting the other.  Mark’s original version was so sparse that someone later went back and added an additional ending.  Luke highlighted events along the road to Emmaus as the center piece of his story.  In Matthew the disciples don’t see the risen Lord until they return to Galilee.

  Then there is the account in John.  It begins with Mary Magdalene going to the tomb by herself.  If this were a made for TV movie you can just imagine the creepy soundtrack being played as alone, Mary walked in the semi-darkness toward the tomb.  There would be shrieking sounds as Mary found the stone rolled away.  We would have all feared for her life as she looked inside the tomb.  When she found it empty, she would have turned, stumbled, then ran back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what she had discovered.  In the next scene we would witness the detectives Peter and John gathering clues concerning the mysterious disappearance of the body.  Completely confused the disciples would return home, leaving Mary alone, weeping. 

I have no idea why Mary returns to the tomb.    Obviously Jesus wasn’t there.  Maybe she just wanted to be close to the place where she had seen him last.  Maybe in her grief, she also wanted to die.  For whatever reason, she returns to the tomb and goes inside. Imagine her surprise when she discovers two angels sitting where the body had been.  The angels ask a ridiculous question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” 

For many of us, Easter is the most glorious moment in the history of humankind.  Yet imagine being Mary.  She found herself right in the midst of God’s revelation but none of the pieces seem to fit.  The tomb was empty, the grave clothes were left behind, the disciples had run off to who knows where and two angels calmly sat in the tomb telling her not to weep over the death of the most important person in her life.

Marie Berger wrote, “Once in a while one becomes profoundly and spiritually bewildered.  The neat answers crumble in a sea of confusion as we are led astray into a pathless wilderness that has no obvious beginning or end.”    Many of us have sat with spouse at the moment of their loved one’s death.  One minute the person they love more than anyone else is here, and then they are gone.  The survivor looks sorrowfully into our eyes and asks, “Why?”  We whisper the first thing that comes to our mind, “The person you love is not dead; they are living eternally with God.”   

An Affirmation? Yes.

Words of comfort? Not always.

While the disciples stumbled over each other trying to figure out which one of them was the greatest, it was the women who were faithful.  When Jesus was tired, the women washed his feet.  When the Last Supper was prepared, do you really thing the men cooked the meal?  Even at the cross, where Jesus was deserted by the disciples, the woman gathered together and supported each other. When the final breath was taken, they claimed his body.  These women listened to Jesus.  They remembered his stories.  And now Mary Madeline, in the midst of her grief, came to make those final burial preparations.  For all the promises of life, Mary could only see death.   For all the promises of tomorrow, Mary could only see yesterday.  Even the angels served to further confuse her bruised heart.

“Where have you taken him? I need to finish the work I started.  I need to say the final prayers.  I need to shed a tear.  I need to hold his hand and kiss his face one last time.” Mary stared blindly at the angels. She was overwhelmed by grief and  overcome by her personal sea of confusion.  Then she hears that voice she had heard a thousand times before, “Mary”.

There was no one around to record this scene.  The disciples had gone home.  The soldiers had fled.  No cameras, no fancy cell phones, no CNN, no one, except Mary.  She turned and looked into that face she adored and answered, “Teacher.”   

Karl Barth, the great Swiss Reformed pastor wrote, “Faith is a decision to believe in God’s mysterious breaking forth. Faith is the belief that God is not dead, not passive, nor inactive but that God works through history for the redemption of humankind.  Faith is enacted by announcing, ‘I have seen the Lord’.”

There is an African-American spiritual that captures Mary’s moment of recognition.  The song begins, “Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name.  Hush…… hush, somebody’s calling my name.   Hush……… hush, somebody’s calling my name.  Oh my Lord, O my Lord, what shall I do?” 

The Christian faith began when Mary found Peter, and John, and the rest of the disciples and testified to the resurrection.  She didn’t bring pictures of the body.  She didn’t share a recording of the voice.  She simply declared, “I have seen him.”

At my last congregation we had a children’s program which met every other Wednesday.  On the Wednesday before Easter we turned the church grounds into Jerusalem.   We began with a parade in the fellowship hall.  We went outside and pretended to be Jesus praying on the hill for the sins of Jerusalem.  We climbed the steps to an “Upper Room” where the kids told me all about the significance of the bread and the body.  We headed back outside to the garden.  We talked about the disciples falling asleep.  We traveled to the court of Pilate, and finally made our way into the sanctuary.  On the communion table was a cross wrapped in black.  The kids were filled with questions. “How did Jesus die? Why did he forgive everyone? Why he was thirsty?” 

Then I sent a couple of girls to the choir room and told them to pretend it was the tomb where Jesus was buried. They quickly came back and announced the tomb was empty.  I asked them what had happened and one girl said, “Jesus rose from the dead.”  I asked her how she knew. She said, “Somebody told me.”

Yes, Easter is the day of resurrection, but Easter is not about worrying with the details. I suspect Easter is best understood when we share the story of God calling our name.

Hush…..Hush…… Someone is calling my name.

O my Lord, O my Lord,  what shall I do?      

To God be the Glory.    Amen.