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.”


        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.