Sunday, February 24, 2019

Expect Nothing in Return?

Genesis 45:1-15; Luke 6:35


        Jesus said:

Love your enemy.

Do good to them.

Forgive them.

        Expect nothing in return.


That hardly seems unreasonable. In my younger and wiser years I preached, or more correctly I lectured, on the Godly expectation of turning the cheek to our most mortal enemies. Using history as my witness I would point out we fought two world wars against the Germans and now they are one of our staunchest allies. I would ask how many drive Japanese automobiles.  I would note that most of our phones and TV’s are probably made in China.  I would finish by reminding you that folks in Washington are suggesting we now have more in common with the Russians than the Canadians. My goodness how the world turns. So love your enemies. Tomorrow they might be your best friend.

But what if you have been harmed by someone you love?

How do you continue to love them?

How do you do good to them?

How do you forgive them?

How can you expect nothing in return?


        Even Jesus knew how much harder it is to forgive someone you love. Twenty years ago I probably had a great sermon on that subject. But like I said, I was much wiser then. Today, all I dare do is share a story.

Once there was a young man possessed by dreams who had the gall to share them. Those dreams became the genesis of ambition and jealousy, love and hate, even glory and spite. The young man’s name was Joseph. He was the eleventh of twelve sons and all his older brothers knew the dreamer was the favorite of the father.

Decked out in a beautiful robe given by his adoring dad the dreamer proclaims one day his brothers will bow down before him and declare him to be their Lord. Joseph is seventeen. Judah is close to 30. It has been seventeen years since the eldest heard a tender word from his father. Now the runt was coming of age and demanding the keys to the kingdom. Knowing the father would never turn down Joseph’s request, the eldest acted. He knew the best way to squelch a dream was by making it a nightmare.

A scheme was created. The dreamer was invited to join his elders in the field. Once beyond the protection of his father, Joseph is stripped, gagged and thrown into a pit.  The older brothers sell Joseph to slavers then complete the ruse by dipping the dreamers coat into the blood of an animal. The soiled garment is offered to the father as proof of death. In reflecting on this story Elie Wiesel comments, “When brothers become enemies, God refuses to participate and becomes only a spectator.”

Joseph was taken to Egypt where he is purchased by an officer of Pharaoh.  He becomes Potiphar’s most trusted slave until Joseph’s good looks placed the dreamer in a compromising situation. Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce the young Hebrew but Joseph rebukes her advances. Lady Chatterley claimed Joseph insulted her and Potiphar has the boy thrown into prison.  This chapter ends with the reader informed that, “God was with Joseph and made Joseph favorable in the eye’s of the chief jailer.”

Once again the dreamer begins to dream. For some the dreams predict life, for others death. The dreamer is recognized as one who speaks the truth regardless of the consequences. Joseph is brought before Pharaoh where he predicts seven years of plenty and seven of draught. Believing the foreigner, Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of grain collection and distribution. The dreamer is now 30.

Seven years later a famine entered the whole region. The children of Jacob fear they will not survive. The eldest, Judah, addresses his father. “If we stay here we will die.” Jacob responds, “If we go to Egypt we will be enslaved.” Judah counters, “Better to live as a slave than die free.” Jacob, no longer trusting Judah said, “Go to Egypt but leave Benjamin with me.”

The ten older brothers of the dreamer head south, never suspecting who they will encounter. Even the dreamer had not imagined this scenario. Joseph had been deserted by his original family. Now he is married to an Egyptian woman and has two sons. His only links to the past are memories of his father and his love for his youngest brother Benjamin.

Judah and the brothers arrive. Joseph immediately recognizes them and realizes that Jacob and Benjamin are absent. As the plot thickens, there is neither love nor forgiveness in the heart of Joseph. Not realizing it is Joseph who stands before them, the brothers are at a huge disadvantage. The Egyptian inquires about their family. The brothers’ tell of their father and the younger brother at home.  Most of us would have screamed, “What about the brother you nearly killed and sold into slavery?” But not Joseph. He has waited too long time to misplay this hand. He demanded the brothers prove they are telling the truth by bringing the younger brother to Egypt.

Benjamin arrives, the grain is given, silver is planted in Benjamin’s bags, and Benjamin is arrested. Joseph is ruthless, cunning, and vengeful. He has forgotten nothing. He is willing to do anything to  separate the younger brother from Jacob’s malignant family. After 20 years of dreaming and scheming Joseph is now ready to have his older brothers bow down in absolute fear. But the one thing Joseph had not counted on happens. Judah begs for mercy, not for himself but his father. He begs to be allowed to take the place of Benjamin.

Joseph had not anticipated compassion from this brother he hated. Joseph had been dead to his family for twenty years. He could not believe the events of the past few days. He had the power to destroy Judah with a single word. With a simple nod Judah and the other brothers could have been sent to the very prison that had been Joseph’s earlier home. But Judah, the source of all Joseph’s pain begs, “Don’t break my father’s heart.”

Joseph,  no longer able to control himself, broke down and cried. Were they tears of pain, or relief, or shame that he could not finish the revenge so beautifully planned? Judah was in the crosshairs and Joseph could not finish the execution. And so he whispered, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”

Many a sermon has been preached declaring the story of Joseph as proof that God is always in control, always finding a way where no way seems possible. Even Joseph confesses, “It wasn’t your fault. God sent me here to preserve life.” Maybe Joseph believed what he said. Maybe he was just giving his brothers a break. Or maybe Wiesel was right, “In family quarrels God remains a spectator.”

All I know is how the story ends. Judah is tolerated without expectations. The entire family moves to Egypt. One day Joseph and Yahweh are forgotten. The next morning the sons and daughters of Judah and Joseph wake up as slaves. The Egyptian exile finds its beginning in the disruptive jealousy of men who were brothers. Only then does Yahweh move from the bleachers to the playing field.          

The Book of Genesis serves to remind its readers of three central themes found throughout The Bible. The parables before the story of Abraham remind us that our creating God is also a God who restores both the brokenness of creation and humankind. Second, the stories of Abraham establish that we and God are in a binding covenant. Third, Jacob and his children test that promise. The final stories of Genesis ask two critical questions. How did the children of Jacob get to Egypt? Will Yahweh follow such a dysfunctional family into such a land of darkness?

It is amazing how these stories mimic the relationships between brother and sisters, friends and family. They remind us that while we frequently claim God as our champion in our tragic battles, God seldom takes a side. Yet through a grace beyond our understanding, God is always there to help us find our way home.            To God be the Glory,  Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Did Jesus Really Say That?

Luke 6:17-26
        All our lives we have loved the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are you should people speak ill of you. You shall be comforted. These words from Jesus, found in the Book of Matthew, are heaven sent. No wonder we refer to this text as the Sermon on the Mount. The mountain is where we go to be uplifted. When I am standing on Humpback Rock, no complicating thoughts enter my mind. The view is one step from the Pearly Gates. But then I climb back down to level ground.
        In Biblical jargon, “the plain” is where the real stuff happens. “The plain” is where reality hits us square in the face and what we experience is not always comforting. In the gospel of Luke we find the same sermon recorded by Matthew, only the venue has been changed. We are no longer in the clouds. Luke has Jesus speaking in the midst of reality and the words are radically different. Listen once again to Luke.
        Blessed are you who are poor. The kingdom of God will be yours. Blessed are you who are hungry. You will be filled. Blessed are you who weep. One day you will laugh.
        No one would have a problem with Luke if he had stopped right there. But he continues. Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full. Woe to you who are laughing. One day the table will be turned. I don’t know about you but when I read this passage, I begin to squirm. How could two people have reached such radically different interpretations from the same sermon?  I have been asking myself that for years. This week I read seven different commentaries on this passage and each concluded with the following advice, “Be really careful when preaching this text.”
        Not being one who intentionally looks for trouble, I thought maybe my best bet would be to preach from the Psalms. What a wonderful decision. Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked but delight in the law of the Lord. They are like trees planted by streams of water. They will prosper. But woe to the wicked. They are like the chaff the wind drives away. The Lord watches over the righteous but the wicked will perish.
        There is a reason this is the first Psalm. It employs an ancient formula that occupies the very center of Israel’s moral theology. If you do what is right you will live. But if you follow the way of the wicked, you will perish.   Psalm 1 is a guide to approaching the rest of the Psalms.  Happiness does not come from following the ways of the wicked, or the selfish, of even the foolish. It comes from following God’s instruction found in the Torah. There are two pathways and only one leads to life. Unfortunately life throws a lot our way. The answers are not always obvious and even if they were, we are often tempted to choose the path of instant gratification.   Does that make us wicked? I prefer to say we are self-absorbed, a trait which can lead us away from being righteously concerned for our community.
        So how does understanding Psalm 1 help us understand Luke’s take on the Beatitudes.  The best place to start is by addressing the CONTEXT  of Luke’s gospel. That is a critical concept often forgotten when one does Biblical studies. In other words, who is receiving this gospel? What is their background? Why is Luke’s hearing of Jesus’ sermon seem so different than Matthew’s?  
        The church to which Luke was writing was filled with folks who were social outcast.  The membership was made up of folks who were poor, slaves, and predominately women.   Luke’s gospel is the only one that shares parables of the Lost Sheep, the woman who lost her only coin, and the Good Samaritan.  It is the only gospel which highlights Mary’s “Magnificat”. Luke was writing to an oppressed people longing for a word of hope that extended beyond their sense of helplessness.  Luke’s gospel was a new song daring to preach a dangerous message to folks who had nothing to lose.  They needed to hear the words, “Blessed are the poor.” But more than that, keeping in the tradition of the Psalms, they needed to be reminded that even though they were economically disadvantaged, this did not mean they had an excuse not to be righteous.  
        How easy it is to whimper, “Life isn’t fair. I didn’t get the breaks others got.  You can’t expect me to be successful with all the handicaps in front of me.” Luke knows the disadvantages of his congregation. He knows they will never be leaders in their community. Luke knows professing Christ will not enhance their opportunities for upward mobility. Yet Luke’s gospel encourages them by saying, “Righteousness has nothing to do with your social class or pay check. Righteousness is a choice everyone can make.  Righteous living does not insure economic wealth, but it does place you in the company of the one who suffered for the world. If God can resurrect Jesus from the dead, image what God can do through the faithfulness of the righteous.”
        It is probably at this point one brave soul raised her hand and asked, “So, does God bless those folks who have put us in chains? Does God bless their children who never worked a day in their life and live on their parent’s wealth? Does God bless those living off the wages that should be in our pockets? Does God bless the rich?”
        Walter Brueggemann writes, “There are some that think social policy, and justice, and taxes, and entitlements are not the business of the church. But they are wrong. Being baptized means we are no longer among those who are selfish, or greedy, or preoccupied with themselves. We have been baptized into righteousness. Our lives are now marked by generosity, grace, and forgiveness. With both hope and indignation, we cry out that the world can be changed.”
        God has invited all who are baptized to participate in the healing of the world. The question is not are you rich or poor, liberal or conservative, Baptist or Presbyterian. The question is, do you bless other people with gestures of kindness and generosity? Are you committed to acts of peace and reconciliation? Do you love your neighbor?
        Perhaps the way we need to hear the word from the Gospel of Luke is woe to those who are unrighteous. Woe to those who prey on their neighbors. Woe to those who place economic gain before the welfare of their community. I suspect that is what Luke was saying. I know it was the intention of the Psalmist. And I imagine those are words which can inspire us to keep building the kingdom of God,
                        To God be the glory.   Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Dear Governor

Isaiah 6:1-13
        “Whom shall I send?” Many of the epic stories of the Old and New Testament begin with that inquiry. The question is so commanding Daniel Schutte wrote an equally powerful anthem which is sung at almost every ordination service. I have had the honor of preaching at a number of these celebrations.  Isaiah 6:1-8 is the text usually chosen as the scripture of choice.
Notice they pick Isaiah and not Moses. Oh, the same question was asked of Moses. God said, “Whom shall I send to go to Pharaoh?” Fearfully Moses replied, “Not me, my speech is hardly persuasive.”
No one picks the Elijah text. God said, “Whom shall I send to confront Jezebel?” Elijah didn’t say anything. He was too busy running away to the mountains.
No one picks the Jeremiah text. “Whom shall I send to tell the king he is about to be killed by the Babylonians?”  A cowering Jeremiah replied, “Don’t send me. I am just a boy.”
No one picks the John the Baptist story. “Whom shall I send to tell Herod he has sinned?” John gleefully volunteered and had his head handed to him on a platter.
That is why  everyone loves the Isaiah text. God asked, “Whom shall I send?” and before another word can be spoken Isaiah jumps up and begs, “Send Me. Send Me.” We close the Bible, preach the sermon, ordain the new minister, and through teary eyes sing, Here Am I Lord.
But today you have heard the rest of the story. The call of Isaiah does not end with verse 8. Once Isaiah accepts the invitation, God explains the task with this brutal command!
You say to this people, “Keep listening but don’t understand; keep looking but don’t understand. Make the minds of this people dull. Stop up their ears, shut their eyes that they may not turn and be healed.”
Isaiah responded, “How long, O Lord?” Suddenly the prophet wished he had not been so quick to volunteer. Why was he chosen to proclaim such devastating words?  He wasn’t the morality police. He was no better than his neighbors. Why should he be the bearer of such devastation?
The amazing story of the Bible is ordinary folks called to proclaim an extraordinary message of truth. In the Book of Exodus, despite their pain, slaves whispered a song of hope that could not be silenced by Pharaoh. Elijah, armed with nothing but a promise, stood naked before Jezebel. Time after time Jeremiah would preach and be thrown in prison. Yet his voice could not be silenced. These stories remind us of those Biblical witnesses who painfully yet faithfully articulated the uncompromising holiness of God. If they were silent, if Moses, Elijah, and John had not stood against Pharaoh, Jezebel, and Herod, then truth doesn’t matter. Their faithfulness reminds us that we are called to speak. But that is frightening. For if we dare to speak, we know there will be consequences.
Fifty years ago I enrolled at King College in Bristol Tennessee. I was seventeen years old and not nearly as wise as my age might indicate. But I was a pretty good athlete. My freshmen year I lettered in three sports and was the star wide receiver of our intramural football team. You might say I was Julian Edelman and our quarterback, Danny Alexander, was Tom Brady. We were inseparable.
Then one day Danny stopped by my dorm room. His eyes were immediately drawn to the Confederate Flag hanging on my wall.
“Why do you display that?” he asked.
I casually responded, “I just want everyone to know I am a good old southern boy.”
Leaving the room he said, “That is not what it says to me.”
I ashamedly remember thinking, “Who does that uppity nigger think he is?”
The relationship could have ended right there. We were still the stars of the team but we seldom spoke. Then one day Danny took it upon himself to become the prophet of the Lord. I was playing pool in the Student Union and Danny called the next game. As he was racking the balls he said, “Let’s put a little bet on the game. If I win I get your flag.” 
“OK”, I said, “What do I get if I win?”
Danny, looking into my soul said, “Eternal Damnation!”
We never played that game. Instead a four year conversation began in which we explored our past, our present, and our dreams for the future. Looking back I remember those conversations to be an eye opening revelation into the hypocrisy of a nation that claimed to be the land of the free.  For Danny it was something far more important. He was talking about life and death.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of African slaves being brought to the shores of Virginia. How long must this conversation continue? “Until cities lie wasted without inhabitants, and the land is absolutely desolate. Until there is a vast emptiness in the land and only a stump remains. Until out of that stump a holy seed emerges.”
No matter how often we claim there is no longer racism in America, it remains our primary sin.   Ask Charlottesville.  Ask Richmond. Ask our Governor and Attorney General. This week has caused such anguish in my soul and yet I cling to a faith that boldly declares God continues to be effectively active in our world. I remember my friend Danny. He believed there was a holy seed within me. He believed I was defined more by the word of the prophet than a battle flag. He believed, if given some direction, I could eventually preach against this sin that had dominated our lives.
I hold the same hope for our elected officials. I want them to go to church. I want them to hear the liberating word of the Lord. I want their ears and eyes opened to a reality they have chosen to ignore. I want them to not only confess their sins; I want them to be morally outraged. I want them to lead a dialogue that goes beyond finger pointing and name calling. I want them to be converted by these words of Jesus, “I have come to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  
I believe Virginia is waiting for a word from Christians who are not angry, or anxious, or weary, or quarrelsome, or cynical, or in despair.   In the midst of racial injustice, sex scandals, and our inhumanity toward each other, Virginia is looking for a word of hope.   Just like God called Isaiah, just like God called my friend Danny, God is offering us an invitation to be healing agents.  It might be to a neighbor, or a family member, or the governor of our state. I warn you, it will be hard BECAUSE God’s truth is not a private deal in which we are not inconvenienced.
Fifty years ago how inconvenient must it have been for a black man to reach out to me. So how faithful are we if we are unwilling to have this difficult conversation with folks burdened by our nation’s 400 year old sin?   
God is still whispering, “Whom will I send?”
Please find the courage to say, “Send Me.”     Amen.  

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A Communion Meditation

I Corinthians 13


        With the possible exceptions of Psalm 23 and John 3:16, no scripture is more beloved than I Corinthians 13.  We most often hear this sonnet quoted at weddings. After a few sessions of forgettable counseling, the minister has one last chance to plant a seed of invaluable wisdom into the hearts of the couple.  Paul’s words should have been shared earlier. Young couples seldom recall anything said during the ceremony. The groom stares straight ahead wishing he had paid attention to the vows he will soon be asked to recite. The bride is overwhelmed by this spectacular event she has orchestrated since birth. The groomsmen are recovering from the night before and the bride’s maids are anticipating the party that begins when the formalities of worship conclude.   Mothers are worrying that everything will be perfect and Fathers wonder how just a little ceremony ended up costing so much.  You get the picture. While I Corinthians 13 seems to be the perfect scripture, the ceremony comes with anxieties which eliminate the possibilities for any cognitive transformations.

        But then Paul’s sonnet on love was not written as a homily for a wedding ceremony. First Corinthians 13 was written as an elixir to calms the heated spirits of a church in mortal combat. The church in Corinth had divided into three or more groups and no one was willing to seek common ground. Who was the head of their worshipping community: Paul, Apollos, or Peter? And what was the greatest gift each of these men possessed? Was it intellect, healing, talking in tongues, or their prophetic ministry? In the midst of all this division Paul dares to insert a fourth name and a greater gift. It would appear this was the intention of Paul. So why Paul did think his voice would be heard? The same reason we think our voice will be heard when someone is pigheaded enough to disagree with us. The truth is, as much as we love First Corinthians 13, it is the last thing we want flung in our face when we are overcome with anger and self-righteousness. Let’s say after the service you approached me and said, “Louie, I am not a difficult person to get along with but I believe you are completely misguided when it comes to your views on……… fill in the blank.” What would be your response if I replied, “If you were a patient, kind, and loving person, you would be able to see how right I am?”

        So imagine how responsive the folks in Corinth were to Paul’s edict. First and Second Corinthians are an attempt by Paul to get these folks on the same page. Historically we know he was not successful. They eventually split and became First Baptist, First Methodist and First Presbyterian. Of course I am kidding. The church didn’t officially do that for another 1500 years. But isn’t amazing as an institution we have always been in conflict because our modus apparatus has always been, “I am right and you are wrong.”  So what’s love got do with it?

        Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, “Love is not a general principle but the utterly unique event of the life and death of Jesus.” From the moment we could utter our first words we were taught, “God is love.” Then we created neighboring definitions which allowed us to brush up against the holiness of the concept but never fully endorse it. You do not have to speak Greek to be familiar with the words, eros, storge, and phileo. Eros refers to love inspired by attraction, passion and desire. Storge is the natural affection one has for a pet or a child. Phileo is defined as an affinity, fondness or friendship.   Then there is agape. This word is used over 300 times in the New Testament but is barely mentioned in the rest of Greek literature. Paul adopts this word for his sonnet. This is the word we find multiple times in the Gospel of John to describe the actions of God. Perhaps this is not more than a word. Perhaps it is a personification of the holy.

        I believe Paul had no intentions of reminding us of what we can become but rather was affirming who Jesus already was. Look what happens when we insert Jesus for Agape.

        If I speak but don’t have the love of Jesus, I am a noisy gong. If I understand everything, if my faith is enormous, if I give away everything but don’t have Jesus, I gain nothing.

        Jesus is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, nor resentful. Jesus bears all things. Knowledge and prophesy will change. Believing in such concepts leaves me as a child, seeing through a dim mirror. But one day we shall understand. Faith and hope abide. But without the love of God, what good are they?

        Perhaps understanding agape is not so much about what we can become but rather about remembering who God is. I hate to say this but I don’t believe anyone, including Mother Theresa, Dietrich Bonheoffer, or Martin Luther King Jr. is capable of always loving unconditionally. We all have a propensity toward jealousy, rudeness, boastfulness, resentfulness, and even celebrating at the expense of others. Yet the patient and kind God, who first loved us, is still loving our sorry selves.   And that love will never diminish no matter what we do.  

        We love in so many ways, yet sacrificial love is usually a little bit above our pay grade. Thankfully we regularly come to the table of grace to be reminded we are not alone. The bread broken, the cup shared, transforms us to become what only Agape imagined we were destined to be.

        To God Be The Glory.                   Amen.