Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Calling


Philippians 4:4-9

        When I began this four week series on Philippians it was intended as a good-bye address. The conclusion was to be today, using six verses from my favorite New Testament book. As it turns out I will be around a little longer than anticipated. Your interim committee has found a wonderful minister. Jewell-Ann is a good friend and I am thrilled you will be in such competent hands. She will not arrive until January, so the session has asked me to stay until then. Honestly, with the holidays, I probably should have waited until December 31 to retire.   My plan is to hang around and be Jamie’s assistant until Jewell-Ann arrives so pretend this is my last sermon even though it is not.  

        Fifty two years ago I stood before Norfolk Presbytery and declared my intentions of becoming a Presbyterian minister. I had not yet entered college. Today, for excellent reasons, this step is not taken until a candidate enters seminary. I was asked to present a statement of faith. Half of the folks in attendance were elders from local churches. They were delighted to see a young person proclaim his faith. The rest were ministers with graduate degrees in theology who could care less what I believed. 

        I have no idea what I said. I am certain I was sincere. I am equally certain the statement lacked maturity. Like any living organism, faith must grow. That growth comes through experience, exploration, and taping into the opportunities God places in front of us.

        I was blessed to attend four outstanding institutions of higher learning. I studied under some of our finest minds in the areas of History, Ethics, Christian Education, and Biblical Theology. Equally important, these were outstanding men and women who placed decency above personal gain. They planted seeds within my brain but ultimately, what one believes must sprout from the heart. My faith was nourished by folks whose names I have forgotten.

        In 1971 Danny, a college classmate, entered my room and tearfully announced, “Zero is dead.” I don’t remember Zero’s actual name. His high school football jersey number was zero, thus the nick-name.  Zero did not have a student deferment and had been drafted the year before. Zero and Danny had attended a local African-American high school. Danny asked if I would join him and a couple others who were going to see Zero’s mom. I reluctantly went. I remember being the only white person in attendance and feeling profoundly out of place. I went to offer Zero’s mother my condolences. I will never forget her words, “My son was killed in a place I never knew existed. My country didn’t care about my son until they drafted him. At least the Vietnamese soldier that killed him considered him to be man.” And then she hugged me.

        In 1978 I was serving as a campus minister in Charleston, South Carolina. The Roman Catholic minister, Sam Miglarese, asked if I wanted to join him and some students working with families of migrants picking tomatoes outside Charleston. Our job was to the entertain children while the parents were in the field. What it really meant was eight hours of changing diapers. Deb managed to take some time off to join us. It was wonderful having someone in the camp with medical expertise. Deb began to care for a boy who might have been one year old. He had horrible diarrhea and pretty much needed individual care. Both of us instantly fell in love with him. I began to think of what kind of care he would receive once the family moved to the next camp. Then I wondered what kind of family would show such neglect toward a child. That Friday evening we were invited into the camp to meet the families. In my mind I already knew what sort of folks I would encounter. Again, God placed me where I needed to be. I met the parents of the child. They knew Deb had cared for him. The mother said, “Normally the children have to come into the fields with us. But we heard a priest had brought students to care for our children. My child came back fed and as clean as when we had left him. He has been sick and I didn’t want to leave him. But I trusted your priest. I trusted you. Please thank your wife for loving and caring for my child.”

        In 1985 I spent a month in Nicaragua during the war between the Sandinistas and Contras. I was with a group called Witness for Peace.  We traveled the countryside staying in villages. Since we were American citizens, the Contra forces would not attack a village if we were present. I had a bedroll, a small backpack, canteen, Bible, and notebook.  We traveled north to Estelí where I was assigned to stay in the home of a Sandinista woman whose husband and son had been killed during the past year.  I knew maybe three Spanish phrases and she spoke no English. I arrived in time for dinner. We ate, shared pictures of our families, and then sat in silence. As darkness fell I said “Estoy consado” which she understood to mean I wanted to go to sleep. She showed me my room. When she had left I sat in a chair and opened my Bible to Psalm 56. I glanced at the photo of her husband and son she had lost to bullets purchased by my tax dollars.  Unexpectedly my hostess reappeared with water and some cookies. She saw my open Bible. She left and returned with her own. I would read a verse in English, she would repeat the verse Spanish. The Psalm begins, “Be gracious to me.  All day long my foes trample me. I am afraid and put my trust in you.” When we finished the Psalm she said, “Buenas noches” and then something I could not understand. The next morning I ran to get one of our bilingual folks and brought her to the house. I asked my friend to ask my hostess to repeat what she had said the night before. The interpreter translated, "You are not my enemy. Hate and fear killed my family, not you.”

        God has placed many folks in my path. Some I have embraced. Others I have stumbled over. Each has reshaped my faith. A mother in Bristol placed her grief aside long enough to warn me that evaluating a person by the color of their skin only exposes my ignorance. A migrant worker south of Charleston helped me understand one’s love of a child cannot be based on economic stability. A widow in Nicaragua disclosed to me loving one’s enemy is the initial step toward conquering fear and hate.  

        Fifty-two years ago, as I stood before Norfolk Presbytery, my statement of faith was probably a paraphrase motivated by the words, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Today my statement of faith centers not on who I believe God to be but rather on how God keeps trying to beautifully transform us into become someone we never imagined.

        Listen to Paul’s final testimony to the folks in Philippi. Let your gentleness be known. Do not be overcome by worry. Allow the peace of Christ to be the guardian of your hearts and minds. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is loving, keep doing these things and the God of peace will be with you.

        Tracy Chapman, one of my dashboard poets, added, Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Don’t you eat of the bitter fruit. Hunger only for the taste of justice; Hunger only for a world of truth; cause all that you have is your soul.

        My friends, continue to glorify God through your words and deeds cause all that we really have is our soul.   Amen.   

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Pressing Forward

Philippians 3:4b-14;

          When is the last time you updated your résumé? Those of you who have retired are probably thinking your last update WAS your last update. The Apostle Paul might suggest you not be so hasty.

          Paul sent the Philippi church his faith résumé. On paper it was impeccable.   Paul was circumcised on the eight day, born of Hebrew parents, he was a member of the tribe of Benjamin. He was a Pharisee who had proved his zeal by persecuting members of the early church. As for righteousness, according to the law, Paul was blameless.

          What else could Paul say? In terms of his past, he had done everything right. He was intelligent, loyal, diligent, and trustworthy. Yet his résumé was woefully lacking. It said nothing of his future.

          Résumés are often nothing more than a stepping stone to your next job. It lists who you have been, not who you are becoming.   Eight years ago I was interviewed for this job. I was asked a couple questions about what I done in the past but the committee was more interested in who we might become if I was offered the opportunity to serve you. I had the credentials, the track record and a bunch of great references.  But none guaranteed I had the energy and drive to take on a new adventure. Résumés don’t predict your future, they just celebrate your past.

          In Philippians 3 Paul took a long hard look at his resume and declared, “Whatever gains I had, I now regard as loss.” Personal catharsis might be good for the soul, but it would seem to be counterproductive in terms of winning the hearts of the good church members in Philippi.  I think something else was on Paul’s mind.

          The folks in Philippi knew Paul. They knew his history. They were aware he had persecuted Christians but now all was forgiven. Paul had proven himself to be the leader of the Christian community. He was a hero and his story was celebrated. Fearing his success was overshadowing the message, Paul undermines his own résumé by insisting nothing but Christ matters.

          What a radical thought!  Except for being old and white, what do we have in common? I suspect very little. Some of us are from the South, drink Coca-Cola, and eat sweet potato pie. Others are from the North, drink pop, and eat pumpkin pie. Some of you listen to Mozart and Bach and insist Zeppelin was an inflatable airship. Some of you argue the classical age of music began with Roll over Beethoven. Some of you are Republicans, some of you are Democrats, and a lot of us are just worn out. We come from different places, with different stories, and different expectations. We think differently, eat differently, recreate differently, and have different priorities. So what do we have in common?

          We all claim to believe in God. As soon as I say this many of you are thinking about how your understanding of God is fundamentally different than the person sharing your virtual pew. I would not disagree.  I have never served a more theological diverse congregation. Some of us grew up in churches where we learned the Apostle’s Creed before we could say our A, B, C’s. Some of you come from churches which did not have a Creedal tradition. Many of you grew up with Creeds and only to discover they do not parallel your personal faith journey.

          That is one of the many things I love about Rockfish. We expect both freedom of expression and the expectation that every voice be heard. I find that refreshingly delightful. But I still insist our primary motivation for being here is a belief in something bigger than ourselves. Against all the facts, scientific and otherwise, we remain confident that God will offer a path which will transform our past. We believe, God has always been in the habit of doing a new thing, an astounding thing, a liberating thing. Paul witnessed this liberation in the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul saw this event, this cosmic interruption of history, as something that had never happened before and would never happen again. God became flesh and walked among us once, and for all time.  What Paul had done in the past was outmaneuvered by what God was now doing in the future. Paul wanted to be part of this new adventure. He writes, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of God in Christ Jesus.”


          Our God doesn’t circle the wagons. Our God is always moving forward toward a radical act of liberation. I know our vision is limited. I know we get tired. I know we become discouraged. I know sometimes we want to pull out our resume and claim we have done enough.

          News Flash! God is not interested in what we have done. God is only interested in what we are about to do. God is not interested in where we have been. God is only interested in where we u are going. Liberation can never be stagnant. When dare to live in the light of God, each day is a new beginning.  When we dare to approach life with this attitude, everything changes. 

          My favorite song writer is Guy Clark. He is a poet’s poet who writes about nothing and makes it come alive. Guy claimed not to be religious but his songs have transformed my faith.  Allow me to share one with you.


The Cape

Eight years old with a flour sack cape tied all around his neck.

He climbed up on the garage,  figurin’  what the heck.

He screws his courage up so tight the whole thing came unwound.

He got a runnin’ start and bless his heart, he headed for the ground.

Well he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith,

Spread your arms and hold your breath; always trust your cape.


All grown up with a flour sack cape tied all around his dreams.

He’s full of piss and vinegar, he’s bustin’ at the seams.

He licked his finger and checked the wind; it’s gonna be do or die.

He wasn’t scared of nothing boys, he was pretty sure he could fly.

Well he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith,

Spread your arms and hold your breath; always trust your cape.


Old and grey with a flour sack cape tied all around his head.

Still jumpin’ off the garage, and will be till he’s dead.

All these years the people said he’s actin’ like a kid.

He did not know he could not fly; so he did

Well he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith,

Spread your arms and hold your breath; always trust your cape.

Spread your arms and hold your breath; always trust your faith.





Sunday, October 11, 2020

Make My Joy Complete

Philippians 2:1-4

        Well…….it finally happened. Folks who know me knew this was inevitable. While on the outside I may come across as soft-spoken and calm there is an inherited rage that dwells within me.  My father loved Don Quixote. There was never a day he wasn’t searching for some windmill to attack or a Dulcinea to rescue. My Dad had a high self-imposed ethical standard which he imposed on everyone else. He loved the song, “Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong, I’ve got to be me.” When I know I am right, my inner LV kicks into high gear often leaving a mess that takes more than mop and pail of water to clean up.

        Last Sunday, after a wonderful World Communion Service, I headed home at peace with the world.   I opened the front door and heard a familiar voice. A relative… on Deb’s side of the family… was ranting endlessly on the speaker phone about the state of his universe. Needless to say we do not share a similar world-view. After at least fifteen minutes of listening to an uninterrupted monologue, my inner LV exploded. What happened next was neither pretty, or necessary. I could have said goodbye and hung up the phone. I should have just gone into another room and immersed myself in John Grisham’s newest novel.  But I had to speak up and,  “march into hell for a heavenly cause.”


        Isn’t it amazing how often when speaking for Jesus, or defending the honor of the Almighty, we make a mess even God has a hard time cleaning up. I have got to tell you, once the call ended, and I had vanquished the foe, the adrenalin running through my veins felt great.  Bring on the rest of the family. Who are they when compared to me?     pause

        Monday morning I opened my Bible to the second chapter of Philippians. “Make my joy complete. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself.” As I read this passage I was reminded of a quote by Douglas Hall. “Christians are God’s chosen instrument for accomplishing peace upon the earth.” And then he adds, “I wonder what went wrong with that holy strategy.”               pause

        Thousands of years ago a poet imagined how he might describe God. That is a risky task to undertake. So as dreamers are apt to do he created a story. Once upon a time the world turned away from God’s original plan. Greed and selfishness replaced humanities desire to love God and neighbor. Wars and rumors of wars monopolized every conversation. God turned to the council of angels and declared, “I’ve had enough. I shall destroy all humanity and start over.” One angel dared to raise her hand, “O Master of the Universe, might I speak.” She waited for what seemed to be an eternity which in God’s world is longer than anyone can imagine. Finally God nodded and the angel whispered, “What about Noah? What about his family? Just last week you were bragging about how much he pleases you.”

        Well you know the rest. Noah built a boat. He and his family escape death. And when the rains ceased, a rainbow filled the sky. If you were in a Baptist Church the minister would tell you this was a sign that next time God will destroy the earth with fire instead of water. Nice ending but not very Biblical. In ancient times the rainbow symbolized God’s promise to preserve life. It was a bow without arrows. God’s response to the sins of the world would always include redemption.    


So what does the Noah story have to do with me losing my temper? How many times have you thought, “I wish I had kept my words…… or arrows ….. in its quiver?”

        A second story.  Once again the world had turned away from God’s plan. Again greed and selfishness had replaced humanities desire to love God and neighbor. Wars and rumors of war monopolized every conversation. The angels turned to God and complained, “Master of the Universe, how can you allow this to continue? They are destroying your creation.” Without hesitation God responded, “I have a plan. I shall send a child to grow up among them. He will walk in their footsteps. He will listen to their complaints. He will tell a story or two. He will show them how to live.”

        One angel spoke. “How will you arm him so he might survive amidst the violence and narcissism of the world?

        God responded. “I will bless him with humility”.

        “Humility? Are you out of your ever loving mind?”

        God answered, “Perhaps instead of always desiring speak for me, humanity might try to act like my son.”

        So the question this morning becomes does the world, does my neighbor, does my enemy, see Christ in me?  Teddy Roosevelt liked to say, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” I believe Jesus said, “When it is necessary to say something which might be both true and painful, say it softly, say it with the intent to heal, not hurt. Say it in love.” Or in other words, “Speak softly and carry a big cross.”

How humiliating…….How humbling…..How Christ-like.


Do we really desire a world without rainbows? Then let’s work harder at understanding each other’s burden.   



Sunday, October 4, 2020

World Communion Sunday

Philippians 1:27

        I am so delighted our lectionary schedule has turned to Philippians during the month of October.  It is a precious jewel often overlooked because it is not one of the gospels and some folks are put off by the Apostle Paul. Never the less, it might be my favorite New Testament book.

        Paul loved the congregation in Philippi. They were gracious and loving in every aspect of ministry. Unlike his letters to Corinth, Paul was not trying to calm turbulent complications. The folks in Philippi seemed to genuinely like each other. Unlike his theological treatise to the Romans, Paul was not writing a doctrinal analysis on grace.  It was just a letter written to friends he greatly missed. Sometimes Paul can come across sternly. Sometimes he takes the role of a disciplinarian. To the Philippians he writes, “I celebrate you just as you are.”

        I wish we would share those words more often. We often place such high expectations on others. We impulsively evaluate folks based on their economic status, the number of degrees on their wall, their political leanings, their cultural background, their sexual orientation, their marital status, and the list goes on and on. We hang out with folks who reflect our image of perfection and then wonder why we are so bored. What did Paul have in common with the folks at Philippi. They were raised in a Greek culture dominated by a Roman political system.  Paul was born a Jew and trained in a synagogue. They lived their entire existence within a radius of ten miles. Paul traveled the world. They were shopkeepers, he was a missionary. They raised families, he never married. They had nothing in common except a belief in the transformational grace of a God who defied death and redefined the very meaning of life.

        When did you first discover God celebrated your uniqueness? My epiphany happened on a Sunday morning at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Greensboro North Carolina. I was seven years old. In 1957, 99.9% percent of all Southern Presbyterian churches served communion four times a year. In 1957 no one was allowed to take communion in the Southern Presbyterian Church unless you were a confirmed member. Confirmation class usually happened when one turned 16. Seven year olds were never invited to participate because someone at the General Assembly office in Atlanta Georgia decreed no seven year old could fully understand the significance of the sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the world. That is understandable because today I am 70 and I am still not sure I understand it.

        63 years ago, on World Communion Sunday, the minister stood before his congregation and boldly declared we were more than just Presbyterians. He probably quoted Paul, “In Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, male or female, free or slave.” Then he began to adlib, “On this special day there is no division between Presbyterian or Baptist, Catholic or Methodist, Church of Christ or Lutheran. In Christ we are all accepted as part of God family.”

        I do not remember the minister, who happened to be my father, say when it comes to communion God makes no distinction between a child and an adult but that is what was running through my mind.        The bread was distributed to the congregation. The body of Christ, broken for me, was passed right under nose. I tried my best to grab a piece of bread but my arm was frozen by a longstanding tradition excluding anyone who did not meet the criteria established by the office of ministry in the city of Atlanta Georgia.

        But God, who will not be deterred by denominational practices, works in mysterious ways. God, who speaks a thousand tongues, whispered into the ear of the woman sitting beside me. While everyone else was praying silently she said, “Did you want to take the bread?”

I nodded.  

“Do you know what it means?”

I nodded a second time.

She responded, “Then take the cup.”

        I looked at my father standing behind the communion table. I looked at my mother sitting in the choir. I looked at the elder bringing the communion tray to my pew. Then I turned and looked into the eyes of God. She smiled and said, “It’s OK.”

        Getting those cups out of the communion tray is not always easy under the best of circumstances. When you are seven and defying a sacred edict of the Church it is almost impossible. My hand was shaking so bad I spilled half the juice onto my white shirt. The rest reached my lips. My earthly thirst was quenched; my spiritual journey launched.

        When I got home, there was a lot of explaining to do. My efforts to remove the stains had been less than successful making my sin self-evident. Mom and Dad read me the riot act but then, simultaneously, they acknowledged something holy had happened. They realized even seven year olds are eligible to be permanently stained by God’s grace.

        On World Communion Sunday the church puts aside it’s institutional rubrics and simply accepts that God celebrates us just the way we are.  Male/female, rich/poor, straight/gay, young/old, republican/democrat, red, yellow, black, white, come together to break bread and lift the cup. We, who are stained by the grace of God, come to the table.