Edward Hale, a Unitarian Minister  wrote  the short story, “A Man Without a Country” in 1863 at the height of the Civil War. It was a simple story, patriotic, and became one of the most popular short stories in the 19th century. It is a story about a rash young Army Officer who thought he had found a new identity  and hero in Aaron Burr who wanted to set himself as king of the Louisiana territory. He was caught and tried a traitor. In his Court Martial, he lost his head and cursed the United States. He wished he might never hear of the US again.

The Judge who heard the case was a Revolutionary War veteran himself and thought that since young Philip Nolan had such distain for the US, he would oblige the request. Nolan was put to sea, sailing away the rest of his life with the US Navy. Every captain that took him aboard was under strict orders to never mention anything about the US to him. For 50 years, he traveled just off the coast line, far enough to never see or hear of the US in his lifetime. He dies a broken-hearted man.

One of the stories told of Nolan involves him translating for a group of slaves saved off the coast of Africa. The captain of the ship wants to, for their safety, drop them off at a nearby island. They have none of it, “home, take us home!” they cry. Nolan translates their anguish at being close to home but not able to step ashore. The reader shares the narrator’s discomfort as the irony is in full display.

When it’s done, the usually diminutive Nolan is moved and tells a young ensign to think of home, his family, his country. “Youngster, let that show you what it is to be without a family, without a home, and without a country. And if you are ever tempted to say a word or to do a thing that shall put a bar between you and your family, your home, and your country, pray God in his mercy to take you that instant home to his own heaven. Stick by your family, boy; forget you have a self, while you do everything for them. Think of your home, boy; write and send, and talk about it. Let it be nearer and nearer to your thought, the farther you have to travel from it; and rush back to it when you are free, as that poor black slave is doing now. And for your country, boy,” and the words rattled in his throat, “and for that flag,” and he pointed to the ship, “never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you, though the service carry you through a thousand hells. No matter what happens to you, no more matter who flatters you or who abuses you, never look at another flag, never let a night pass but you pray God to bless that flag. Remember, boy, that behind all these men you have to do with, behind officers, and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to Her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by Her, boy, as you would stand by your mother, if those devils there had got hold of her to-day!”

It’s a beautiful passage that gets to the heart of “country.” Hale does not define what it actually is – there is no “real America” here, just the recognition that whatever your country means for you is what you need to remember about that country. It is the remembering that is important. Distilling everything that is great about one’s country to the one essential element – and then rushing to it. Patriotism to Hale’s Nolan is not letting the people, bureaucracy, government, ideals etc. get in the way of the essence of “the Country herself.”

Beautiful.

Hebrews ends in a similar fashion.  The book is written for a very specific purpose and to a very specific audience. The readers are Hebrews who have chosen to follow Christ. These would be at least second and perhaps even third generation Christians. They have become teachers of the Way, they have a confession, they are thoughtful and educated. They have ritual and engagement in doctrine. The very complexity of the arguments presented demonstrate this! But the readers are a faith community in crisis. Some members have grown lax in attendance at their assemblies, and commitment is waning. If the writer’s urgings are problem specific, then we have in the letter a painfully clear image of their condition. Christ has been dead long enough to pass into legend. He is not discussed as a person – as he is in the Gospels – but as God. Specifically, “so much better” than all gods. “So much better” than all the systems of worship before. This Christ, this deity is worthy of all adoration and worship. This is this point. Hebrews is heavy. It is theological. It is profound.

Until the end.

The end of the book crystallizes Christianity. Here, the author gets to the very heart of community. Like, Hale’s Nolan, it is as if he says to the Church, “look, beyond all this doctrine, beyond the arguments and the evidences, beyond apologetics and esoteric philosophy – there is the Community itself, your community – you belong to it and it belongs to you.”

This deeply theological book ends with a discussion of faith heroes and then, an appeal to simple community living. The community is everything. I wonder what Christianity has if it does not have community?

I often point out that Wicca has a solitary path. Buddhism has a solitary path. Druidism has a solitary path. Christianity does not. Christianity is at is best when functioning as a healthy community. It is described by Christ as a “body” after all.

Hebrews 13 begins simply – Let mutual love continue. Love that cares for one another. It’s present in the community. It is the basis for mutual respect and affection. Think of it – the old apostle, who has seen it all, traveled, planted churches, mediated fights and helped to shape what this Christian thing is going to look like – says to the young, driven, maturing church, “if you want this thing to thrive: love one another.”

Love the body AND love the Stranger.

Hospitality matters. Bring the Stranger to the table. Do not reject those who are different. They too, are the Body or could become part of the Body. The strangers in mind here are most likely the itinerant Christians who depended on local Christian communities for hospitality. It is understandable, however, why some house churches, either living in an atmosphere of suspicion due to opposition and persecution from society or facing the upheavals created by traveling heretics, would become reticent about extending hospitality. Some even used certain criteria for testing strangers before welcoming them. It makes sense that this would happen – being a Christian was not the most popular thing! However, caring for the Stranger came from the best part of the Hebrew tradition and mattered to the healthy functioning of the Community.

Remember those in prison and those being mistreated. Tortured. Suffering.

All is not well in the Community. Every gathering highlighted who was not there. Who was missing. Community does not end when separation begins. The Body cannot lose a member to suffering and not feel the pain of that loss. The language is so strong here – remember them, as though you, yourself, are with them in prison/suffering. As you are to join those in prison, so you are to be in the body of those being made to suffer. To do so requires more than a sympathetic ache; it means refusing to distance oneself from those suffering out of fear of becoming the target of the same mistreatment, providing for the needs of prisoners (prisoners depended on those outside for food, clothing, and all other needs), even though this meant exposing oneself as a fellow Christian, and being present with the sufferers in every way that might encourage and give relief.

What might this look like today? Clearly, no one is going to prison for being a Christian and, at least in America, prisons (while not pleasant places), provide sustenance. What does it mean for us to “remember the prisoner?” For starters, I believe that we need to recognize that prisoners are often there not because they are inherently evil, but in bondage. Their choices have not come out of nothing! There are reasons they have done what they did and, quite frankly, none of us are far from that.

If I have learned anything from my time in prison, it is that anyone is capable of anything. I cannot think of an exception to this off the top of my head though I’m sure there is – put anyone, put me or you, in a certain set of circumstances; add a healthy dose of pleasure and escape from pain; take away proper oversight or inherent inhibitions; add a dash of unhealthy coping  – anyone reading this is capable of just about anything to include myself.

I don’t judge. What’s the point?

I also don’t equate – I don’t say, “well, there but the for the grace of God go I.” That’s a silly comment – as though you got some special grace that the Other did not. No, I made choices based out of what I had available. There is a reason that I am not a prisoner. However, I also do not hold to any notion that I am a better or worse person for not having gone to prison. I certainly am capable of it. And so are you.

So what? Are we to pretend that we are sex offenders so that we can identify with those in prison?

Lets at least start with seeking to understand. Seek to understand why a person is now labeled a “sex offender.” Seek to understand why a person made the choices they made. Seek to understand so that we can help rebuild and repair. Do we really believe in restoration?

I read an article by a chaplain in the Minnesota State Penal System. He compared how we view sex offenders to how this ancient culture would have viewed lepers. Outcast. Scorned. Unclean. Horrible people needing to be cleansed from clean society. God forgive me for ever using my fear to vote for laws that only help drive predators further under ground and set up a world where no one can get help. Just like there is a safe way to integrate an alcoholic or addict into the Body, there is a way to integrate a sex offender. Jesus was not afraid of lepers because he had the means to cure them, cleanse them, help them become clean again. So. Do. We.

The Apostle goes on – be sexually pure. How can the community thrive if people are afraid that their homes are not safe? That the impurity that so defines how the World interacts will bring itself into the Church.

Finally, he warns against loving money. The destroyer of so many communities. Introduce money to something that just watch the community struggle. Greed that knows no limits. It has even become theologized in the church. As though capitalism is the way of God. Saints, it’s just an economic theory. If we love money more than each other, the Stranger, the prisoner, the suffering, our families – all that has been said in Hebrews about Christ being “so much greater” than all the angels… it’s just so many words. We make it true. We put action to it. It’s just hot air. Fancy arguments. Lovely debates – until it becomes action

What the Apostle is talking about here is action.

Doing.

Living.

This is the Kingdom of God.

Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Chaplaincy, Sermon

Despair, thankfulness, and paradigm shift

Peace, Sermon

Robinson Crusoe has been on the island for some time. He, clearly, has been able to meet his “hierarchy of needs” – air, water, food shelter. At least enough so that by chapter 5, he is able to start thing theologically about the mess he’s in.

As I sat here some such thoughts as these occurred to me: What is this earth and sea, of which I have seen so much? Whence is it produced? And what am I, and all the other creatures wild and tame, human and brutal? Whence are we? Sure we are all made by some secret Power, who formed the earth and sea, the air and sky. And who is that? Then it followed most naturally, it is God that has made all. Well, but then it came on strangely, if God has made all these things, He guides and governs them all, and all things that concern them; for the Power that could make all things must certainly have power to guide and direct them. If so, nothing can happen in the great circuit of His works, either without His knowledge or appointment.

And if nothing happens without His knowledge, He knows that I am here, and am in this dreadful condition; and if nothing happens without His appointment, He has appointed all this to befall me. Nothing occurred to my thought to contradict any of these conclusions, and therefore it rested upon me with the greater force, that it must needs be that God had appointed all this to befall me; that I was brought into this miserable circumstance by His direction, He having the sole power, not of me only, but of everything that happened in the world. Immediately it followed: Why has God done this to me? What have I done to be thus used?

Rob is struggling with a little theodicy. Dwelling on these thoughts drive him to despair. His despair results in a dreadful physical malady. He searches for relief. He comes upon a plan to mix fresh tobacco and rum. (Frankly, I like where he’s going with that but the execution leave much to be desired.) This, of course, leaves him worse off. He becomes violently ill.

Sick and tired, he takes something else from a chest he brought from the ship and begins to read. The Bible he has falls open to Psalm 50 and he reads this:

“I took up the Bible and began to read; but my head was too much disturbed with the tobacco to bear reading, at least at that time; only, having opened the book casually, the first words that occurred to me were these, “Call on Me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me.” These words were very apt to my case, and made some impression upon my thoughts at the time of reading them, though not so much as they did afterwards; for, as for being delivered, the word had no sound, as I may say, to me; the thing was so remote, so impossible in my apprehension of things, that I began to say, as the children of Israel did when they were promised flesh to eat, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” so I began to say, “Can God Himself deliver me from this place?” And as it was not for many years that any hopes appeared, this prevailed very often upon my thoughts; but, however, the words made a great impression upon me, and I mused upon them very often. It grew now late, and the tobacco had, as I said, dozed my head so much that I inclined to sleep; so I left my lamp burning in the cave, lest I should want anything in the night, and went to bed. But before I lay down, I did what I never had done in all my life – I kneeled down, and prayed to God to fulfil the promise to me, that if I called upon Him in the day of trouble, He would deliver me. After my broken and imperfect prayer was over, I drank the rum…”

I love this passage. Might be partiality because he ends his prayer with rum. What happens next is worth the book.

July 3. – I missed the fit for good and all, though I did not recover my full strength for some weeks after. While I was thus gathering strength, my thoughts ran exceedingly upon this Scripture, “I will deliver thee”; and the impossibility of my deliverance lay much upon my mind, in bar of my ever expecting it; but as I was discouraging myself with such thoughts, it occurred to my mind that I pored so much upon my deliverance from the main affliction, that I disregarded the deliverance I had received, and I was as it were made to ask myself such questions as these – viz. Have I not been delivered, and wonderfully too, from sickness – from the most distressed condition that could be, and that was so frightful to me? and what notice had I taken of it? Had I done my part? God had delivered me, but I had not glorified Him – that is to say, I had not owned and been thankful for that as a deliverance; and how could I expect greater deliverance? This touched my heart very much; and immediately I knelt down and gave God thanks aloud for my recovery from my sickness.

And this:

“Now I began to construe the words mentioned above, “Call on Me, and I will deliver thee,” in a different sense from what I had ever done before; for then I had no notion of anything being called deliverance, but my being delivered from the captivity I was in; for though I was indeed at large in the place, yet the island was certainly a prison to me, and that in the worse sense in the world. But now I learned to take it in another sense: now I looked back upon my past life with such horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort. As for my solitary life, it was nothing. I did not so much as pray to be delivered from it or think of it; it was all of no consideration in comparison to this. And I add this part here, to hint to whoever shall read it, that whenever they come to a true sense of things, they will find deliverance from sin a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction.”

His condition never changes. He was no more rescued physically that morning than any other morning since he got on the island. It was his paradigm that had changed. He went from seeing himself as a victim of God to being a child of God who had experienced deliverance. The prayer did not change his dreadful plight but simply showed him the “other side” of his misery. His “blessing.”

The verse quoted is from Psalm 50. This week. This will be my sermon – asking “where is God” is the wrong question. The better questions might be – “where am I and where has God been all along?” And then find the answers.

My condition began now to be, though not less miserable as to my way of living, yet much easier to my mind: and my thoughts being directed, by a constant reading the Scripture and praying to God, to things of a higher nature, I had a great deal of comfort within, which till now I knew nothing of; also, my health and strength returned, I bestirred myself to furnish myself with everything that I wanted, and make my way of living as regular as I could.”

Salt

Peace, Sermon

Luke 12:49-53

This generation is noted as being the “most tribal” of many generations before it.

The Mindset List for the Class of 2016 – Beloit College

For this generation of entering college students, born in 1994, Kurt Cobain, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Richard Nixon and John Wayne Gacy have always been dead.

They have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of “electronic narcotics.”

The Biblical sources of terms such as “Forbidden Fruit,” “The writing on the wall,” “Good Samaritan,” and “The Promised Land” are unknown to most of them.

Robert De Niro is thought of as Greg Focker’s long-suffering father-in-law, not as Vito Corleone or Jimmy Conway.

Bill Clinton is a senior statesman of whose presidency they have little knowledge.

They have never seen an airplane “ticket.”

On TV and in films, the ditzy dumb blonde female generally has been replaced by a couple of Dumb and Dumber males.

The paradox “too big to fail” has been, for their generation, what “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” was for their grandparents’.

For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.

They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it.

There has always been football in Jacksonville but never in Los Angeles.

Since they’ve been born, the United States has measured progress by a 2 percent jump in unemployment and a 16 cent rise in the price of a first class postage stamp.

Benjamin Braddock, having given up both a career in plastics and a relationship with Mrs. Robinson, could be their grandfather.

Exposed bra straps have always been a fashion statement, not a wardrobe malfunction to be corrected quietly by well-meaning friends.

A significant percentage of them will enter college already displaying some hearing loss.

Women have always piloted war planes and space shuttles.

White House security has never felt it necessary to wear rubber gloves when gay groups have visited.

Having made the acquaintance of Furby at an early age, they have expected their toy friends to do ever more unpredictable things.

Outdated icons with images of floppy discs for “save,” a telephone for “phone,” and a snail mail envelope for “mail” have oddly decorated their tablets and smart phone screens.

Star Wars has always been just a film, not a defense strategy.

They have had to incessantly remind their parents not to refer to their CDs and DVDs as “tapes.”

Probably the most tribal generation in history, they despise being separated from contact with their similar-aged friends.

They were too young to enjoy the 1994 World Series, but then no one else got to enjoy it either.

While the iconic TV series for their older siblings was the sci-fi show Lost, for them it’s Breaking Bad, a gritty crime story motivated by desperate economic circumstances.

Simba has always had trouble waiting to be King.

Before they purchase an assigned textbook, they will investigate whether it is available for rent or purchase as an e-book.

History has always had its own channel.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has always been officially recognized with clinical guidelines.

They watch television everywhere but on a television.

Point-and-shoot cameras are soooooo last millennium.

Despite being preferred urban gathering places, two-thirds of the independent bookstores in the United States have closed for good during their lifetimes.

Genomes of living things have always been sequenced.

Why are they so tribal? I suspect that it has something to do with the hyper-differentiated reality that can exist online. There, on your personal screen shared with no one, you only see what you want to see. Advertisements themselves are tailored to your personal habits and desires. More and more children in this generation are being home schooled or in private.

As our world gets more and more global, so our lives get more and more tribal.

The ancient Mediterranean world of Jesus was tribal. The average person Jesus preached to in the countryside didn’t often see others outside of their tribe. It was a homogeneous group. The family system was everything. Your place in the family system determined everything about your life. Who you married, what you did for a living, where you lived, whom you reported to. It was bigger than just some kind of cultural phenomenon, it was how the economy was set up. To retain ties to your family was as important to that world as attending the right college and securing a degree that is marketable is in ours. Maintaining the role in the family system kept the world turning as it needed to. Security. Safety. Tranquility. That’s what was needed at home.

But Jesus comes and says he’s going to turn it upside down.

Our passage opens with the image of the “earth-oven.” It is plausible that this ancient oven is what Jesus is referring to. It is something that everyone in his audience would be aware of. The “earth-oven” was a common stove in Jesus’ day. It was made of mud or brick. The fuel was often camel dung that was dried and salted so that it would burn faster. Salt had this mysterious power. It could heal. It could transform food. It could preserve food and it could be used as a catalyst for fire. Often a block of salt would be kept on the floor of the oven to keep the fire going just as the salt crystals did in the camel dung. Eventually, the salt in the oven would lose it’s catalyst properties and need to be thrown out – reminds me of a passage about salt losing it’s savor and needing to be trampled under the foot of men…

Jesus is not just going to be somewhat divisive. He’s not going to just have these ideas that people will debate about and discuss around the dinner table – his gospel is transformative. His gospel is a catalyst for change. The world will never be the same after Jesus comes through.

Specifically, following Jesus’ word’s will turn the status quo upside down. Following Jesus will drive a wedge between a parent and their children, brothers and sisters will no longer talk, those who depended on one another will no longer be together.

Jesus came to throw some salt on the fire.

How does this interact with the message of Jesus being a person of peace? One has to understand shalom. It is not a world where everyone just agrees. The Mediterranean world was loud and argumentative. In fact, challenging one another’s assumptions is a vital part of the Jewish faith. Questions, arguments, discourse – this is the stuff of shalom. I do not think that Jesus ever meant that a peaceful life would be one without questions, challenges, doubt and even argument – those will always exist in even a healthy family – shalom is where love is.

I read this passage as Jesus recognizing the reality that his disciples have been living in. They have experienced the pain of separating from their families as the cost of following Jesus has set in. Many of them have been on the journey now for many months, some for years and it has cost them dearly. The coming pain (Jesus is now dead set on the Cross) will cost even more.

One needs to read this passage in light of the rest of the chapter. Jesus opens the chapter by explaining that the traditional fears of those who could kill the body (sickness, Romans, civil leadership, bandits etc), the regular fears associated with life are not at all what is real. What is real is to fear the One who can kill both body and soul. He explains that the disciples are living in two planes of existence – the physical and spiritual – they need to remember which is more important. Jesus follows this with the parable of the rich man who thought he had it all. He counted his riches by the size of his 401k and the toys lined up in the garage. He was a fool.

Then Jesus tells them not to worry. They have committed to following God, God will take care of their needs. This must have been some wonderful assurance to those who had followed Jesus to the expense of their future.

I have done several conscientious objector interviews. I have counseled many more who have considered taking that route. Often, they are genuinely troubled at doing something that was just an idea before they joined but now, facing the reality that the Army exists to “close with and destroy the enemy” have trouble integrating that with how they view God and themselves. If someone brings it up to me, I lay out what it might cost them. The Army might just let them go. The safety and security they have come to appreciate might, in fact, go away. For a select few, it is a small price to pay for peaceful conscience. I tell them that if God is indeed calling them to the life of a pacifist, God is responsible to care for them. Are they ready for that kind of faith?

The disciples obviously were. I imagine Jesus identifying that God would care for them through each other – their new family system – was like water to the thirsty soul.

Then Christ gets real with them – get ready, be prepared, be watchful, pay attention – it’s time to get serious about this new thing that is coming. It has cost you, it will cost you – are you ready?

Jesus is a catalyst for change. We are called to be salt of the earth. We are to be catalysts for change. Being a Christ-follower is more than just the stuff of Sunday donuts ritual – it is the stuff of transforming lives. And yes, that is going to cause some division. There will be some separation. It’s ok, the God who called you is faithful and will care for your needs, but it is going to cost you something.

Holiness always costs something.

Forgiveness always costs something.

Humility always costs something.

Righteousness always costs something.

Community always costs something.

Are you ready to be salt?

Failing to thrive. In prison and everywhere else.

Chaplaincy, Sermon

“Blessed is he who considers the poor.” This might also be said, “blessed is the one who cares for the weak.” Being poor is a bad thing in our paradigm. It’s a sign of failure, a sign that somehow, whether through some calamity not of their making, some character flaw that causes them to not seek to better themselves (though just what “bettering one’s self might look like is up for considerable debate), or just weak – being poor and needing help is a sign that one is failing to thrive.

When I worked on the mother/baby ward during my year of CPE, there were babies whose diagnosis was “failure to thrive.” It seemed to me to be something of a catch all for babies that just struggled to make it, struggled to gain weight, struggled for life. In any other world, they would have just died but through the amazing advances in medical technology, nutrition, and medicine, they are able sometimes to recover and thrive.

I wonder what “failure to thrive” might look like in prison?

I wonder what “failure to thrive” might look like in a marriage?

In a professional career?

In a one’s personal life etc.?

The psalmist in Ps. 41 declares that the one who considers that one who is “failing to thrive” is blessed! The one writing the psalm is so sick, so in need that they seem despairing of their life. This psalm is often identified as a prayer of individual thanksgiving but it reads more as a plea for help. The prayer comes from one so sick that his continued survival is in jeopardy.  Reading the Psalm makes me wonder if the writer is so sick they are getting a little paranoid?

If the writer is David, it would have been written during a time in his life that he was running. Running from Saul, running from his past, running from death which is always nipping at his heals. David, in the story of his running, takes huge risks. He takes on huge responsibilities, does things that one the one hand are courageous and on the other, frankly stupid. He struggles as I have experienced America’s warrior struggling, with life.

Listen to what his enemies say:

I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord;
heal me, for I have sinned against you.”
My enemies say of me in malice,
“When will he die and his name perish?”
When one of them comes to see me,
he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander;
then he goes out and spreads it around.

All my enemies whisper together against me;
they imagine the worst for me, saying,
“A vile disease has afflicted him;
he will never get up from the place where he lies.”
Even my close friend,
someone I trusted,
one who shared my bread,
has turned[b] against me.

Ever feels like someone is just waiting for you to die? Waiting for you to fail? Waiting for you to struggle, fall, give up? Ever feel like there are those around you whispering about you? Imagining the worst for you? A close friend, someone you trusted, your spouse, your loved one, your confidant – turned against you? Just when you needed them the most, just when it would have been so important for them to stand by you – they walk away, leave you in your failure to thrive?

Ever feel like this might be God?

Have you ever felt like the old Yiddish proverb, “Thou hast chosen us from among the nations – what , O Lord, did you have against us?”

I believe that it is reasonable to feel this way in chaos. If you experienced this, are experiencing this, or are wondering if your feelings about this in the time of your struggle are valid, I can say emphatically that I’ve been down that road myself and they are valid.

Saints, what holds the Psalmist together here is the confidence that they are acting in integrity. They are doing what is right. Though around them is scandal and pain – they are confident that this too shall pass and moving to a place of integrity will carry them through.

“You shall know the truth,

And the truth will set you free.” – Jesus

I read this as a promise that when we get honest with ourselves and move to a place of integrity, we will experience true freedom. It will hurt, it will be painful, it might even give those who have spoken against you cause to triumph but know that in the long run you are better, you are healthier, you are stronger because you no longer care what they say about you! You are no longer dependant on “them” for affirmation and strength. Your day is your responsibility! Your health is your responsibility! YOU are your responsibility!

How freeing would it be for verses 5-9 to not even matter?

Blessed is he who takes care of the weak.”  Once we have cared for ourselves, we can care for others. It is given to us to be authentic, be real, get to the truth and acting with integrity  – then, when we care for others, we do so from a place of love.

I wonder what world’s view of the church would be if, instead of lashing out against perceived ills and confessing grandly the sins of others, we got real with ourselves and spent our energy on what we could control , namely “considering the weak?”

Luke 10:Jesus stood in a field. Around him were his disciples and among them were the “72.” These were disciples that had gone out to spread the news of the coming kingdom. They had returned and were ecstatic! They were bubbling with news of what they had seen and experienced. With joy they relayed what they had seen. A crowd gathered.

Lord! Even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Jesus smiled and replied that he had seen Satan fall from heaven and that he had given them power to tread on serpents and scorpions – over all the power of the enemy. The crowd around Jesus were in awe of the stories they heard.

Of course, not everyone was all that impressed. Some were quite cynical. Cynicism always follows the miraculous. As is should with reasonable people. Doubt can be a good thing.

Jesus praises God –  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

He then says to his disciples quietly (but remember, people are quite close so they can hear), “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” Jesus says to his uneducated, unlearned, unread, unstudied grubby, blue-collar, emotions-bleed-all-over-the-place disciples that they are seeing things that many prophets begged God to see and did not. Things that kings, in all their power and wealth could not see – something that might be just a little annoying to someone standing close by, a lawyer, a theologian, a learned and holy man.

He jumps to his feet and challenges Jesus. “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Immediately, all the air is sucked out of the space. It gets silent. People look to see how Jesus is going to respond to this challenge.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, questions are rarely perceived as requests for information. They are almost always viewed with suspicion as a challenge to personal honor. The hope is that the person who is asking the question will not know the answer and be shamed by ignorance. This is absolutely the case since Luke points out that the intent of the questions is to “test” Jesus.

Here, Jesus responds (as he does in other passages) by insulting the questioner back. Jesus asks the lawyer – a man who has spent his entire life becoming an expert in the law, a specialist in the Torah ,the written Word of God – “well, how do you read?”

What we have here is what is affectionately referred to in my military career as a “sharpshooter.” It’s that Soldier who knows Army Regulations and Field Manuals from back to front. They can quote paragraph and line number to contradict whatever point you are making and they do it in such a way as to make a fool out of you and make themselves look good. If they outrank me, I ignore them or say something like, “thanks for your input Sir. That is a good point.” Or if it’s not going to be disrespectful, I just call it out. “Help me understand why you needed to make that point???” Awkward silence ensues.

Jesus calls him out. “Ok smarty pants, how do you read it?”

The Lawyer, now on the spot, regurgitates the catechism answer. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 thereby revealing that he knew the answer all along. He question wasn’t just a test of Jesus, it was a lie. He pretended to be ignorant though he wasn’t. Instead of shaming Jesus, the lawyer shames himself and Jesus emerges – once again – as the honorable victor in the contest. I can see the gentle (and maybe a just a little condescending, trying not to laugh because the disciples are chortling off to the side) smile as Jesus answers, “You have answered correctly, do this and live.” By now, people are laughing out loud. The lawyer needs to save face. He retorts, “Ok, then, who is my neighbor?”

Now that is a good question. Its really the question. No one argues the point that God requires us to help the “other” what we argue about is just who the “other” is and how much help we have to give them. We don’t argue about the need to holiness, but oh the legalese that comes out when we get into just what that look like and who gets to say what holiness is. Soooo, yeeahhh…

Jesus tells a story.

“There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

It’s a parable in 7 scenes.

Scene 1 – Robbers strip their victim and leave him for dead. Now, no one can identify his ethnicity. This is important. Remember, this is a small place. Everyone looks the same. You distinguish your tribe, money, status by your clothing but now, that’s all gone. Helping this guy carries a risk. No one knows anything about him. If I help him, what does that say about me? What might others say about me, what might I be risking, I don’t know his charges, I don’t know his preferences, I don’t know if he’s weird or not, I don’t know if he can help me back – I just don’t know!!

Scene 2 – The priest comes, riding his donkey which highlights his own status as an elite. He sees the victim and ponders helping him. If the victim is dead or is a non-Judean, he runs the risk of defiling himself by helping him. Then, he would have to return to Jerusalem in shame in front of those for whom he had just performed, gloriously, his priestly duties! His shame stemming from the reality that now, he would have to seek purification rites. The risk is too great and who has the time for all that. No one will even know he didn’t help the “other.” Note: Sirach 12:1-7

Scene 3 – The Levite comes. He might have come a little closer to examine the victim since the road was not straight and it’s possible he even saw the priest pass by before. If the priest did not give first aid, why should the Levite? I mean, if someone else ignores the plight of the weak, should I put myself out there? This would be a challenge to the priest, an insult, and God forbid I insult a preacher! Moreover, if the victim lived in Shechem, that would make him a Samaritan and we all know what that would do to my rep! The Levite passes on.

Scene 4 – The Samaritan shows up. We talked last week all about how Samaritans (Northern Jews) were viewed by Southern Judeans. The fact that Jesus highlights this is shocking and controversial in this tale. Allow me to demonstrate. What if we read the story as this, “the Preacher passed by, not wanting to get his suite dirty – what if the man was a criminal or an addict?? He clearly has nothing for me. The deacon passed by, the director of the men’s ministry who has been a Christian all his life and always is there first thing on Sunday morning in his best three-piece praising God with practiced hand motions. Can speak tongues on command. This guy saw the preacher pass by and thought better of putting that guy into his car. After all, he had another marriage retreat to plan for. Then, an atheist comes. A person unwelcome in their church comes upon the man in the street. He is filled with compassion and reaches out to help.

Scandal.

Scene 5 – The Samaritan offers first aid (wine, oil and bandages), which the Levite could have done but neglected to do. This is risky. The victim could hate him once he regained consciousness since, after all, he was being treated with Samarian wine and oil – impurity. In this story, the Samaritan is “damned if he does and damned if his doesn’t.”

Scene 6 – The Samaritan does what the priest could have done but didn’t: he places the victim on his own animal (by the way, very, very risky – who knows if the robbers are not close by) and takes him to an inn and continues to care for him.

Scene 7 – Finally, the Samaritan, in contrast to the Robbers leaves money and promises to pay what else would be needed in the care of the victim. This is perhaps the most risky part of the story – if the robbers find out that this guy has a soft heart and helped a witness who was supposed to die (tying up loose ends right?) they might come for the Samaritan and his family. Or, if the victim survives, he might rage at the Samaritan for helping him. I cannot express effectively how much these two groups hated one another. Purity matters. Read Leviticus.

The story is not lost on the lawyer. Red with shame and anger, he cannot even bring himself to utter the word, “Samaritan”  when Jesus asks, “Which of the three became a neighbor to the victim?” The lawyer’s question was, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus question was, “To whom must you become a neighbor.” The obvious answer is anyone and everyone in need.

The victim is laying on the ground like the psalmist, failing to thrive, his life passing before him. Naked, his exposed skin (his shame) feels every pain and agony on that ground. He sees his commander, his NCO come near him. At last!! They will help me!! Then they pass by. He sees his Chaplain come near. “He’ll help me. He has to. He’s the chaplain!” The chaplain follows the commander’s lead and passes by on the other side. Then, in shame, he goes to prison. He deepest, darkest secrets known to the world. His career gone. His family gone. His success gone. He is failing to thrive when an inmate, a sex offender, reaches out to him and says, “come, be healed.”

Oh saints!! What stops up from helping? What stops us from healing? What stops us from receiving the blessing of God for “considering the weak?” What keeps up from becoming the neighbor of those who need us? Is it pride? Anger? Is it others? Men of God, this will never go away. You will not get some special dispensation from God once you leave here to help others. There will ALWAYS be a good reason to not help. There will always be a good reason, a solid justification why you can’t “get your hands dirty” if you will not help now, if you will not be a part of God’s healing in someone’s life here, when will you?

When will you?

 

Kings, Generals, Humility, and Grace.

Sermon

2 Kings 5:1-18 – Read it this week. You’ll be glad you did.

This is a disaster. An unmitigated, unpredictable disaster. The powerful king of Aram (incidentally, this ancient kingdom in middle Syria includes the modern day city of Allepo) had sent his highly successful and valued general to the tiny, struggling, village kingdom of Israel for a healing.

I use the word disaster because this sounds to the king of Israel very much like a pretext for a war that the little kingdom could ill afford and would be very likely to lose. When he gets the message, he tears his garment (an ancient demonstration of grief), and despairs for his life.

And he should. The Aramites were a warring people, strong and proud. They looked for fights and usually won. Their children’s children would be a challenge for Alexander the Great’s Greeks and the later Roman legions. Naaman, the mighty warrior coming “to be healed” meant that he would be bringing his personal guard which might mean a few trusted warriors or it might mean a legion to skilled Soldiers for which the weak king of Israel had no match.

Israel is suffering from the ramifications of it’s own civil war. The split that came after King Solomon left the Northern tribes in a weak position and that kingdom quickly degenerated back to it’s tribal village roots. They had become prone to invasion and oppression with each king getting weaker and weaker.

But Israel had a prophet. Elisha was the man of God. The prophet held an interesting place in ancient Israel. He (or she) not only spoke for God, they also were something of a diplomat. They could be a powerful representative of the king or one that stirred the people against him. They were individuals in a world where only households mattered. Others would not know “you” in the ancient Mediterranean world, they would know your family, your house. But the Prophet – if they were a true prophet (false prophets are villains in Scripture and dealt with accordingly) – everyone knew their name! They operated above the political sphere as a balance of power to both kings and priests. Non more so than Elijah and his protege, Elisha.

Elisha hears about the predicament that the king is in and comes to his aid. “Send him to me” he says, “and he will learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” A bold statement from a man know is confident in his God.

So confident is he that when the mighty warrior comes, the Prophet does not even come out to meet him. He sends his servant.

We Americans love to think of ourselves as the supreme equalitists. Everyone rises or falls on their own merits. Everyone has the same chance to succeed or fail. Everyone has to put on their pants “one leg at a time.”

At least, this is the myth we tell ourselves.

The truth is that we very much tend to pander to power. Humans always do. Whether out of fear or love – even the chance at our very own “15 minutes” – we all love to be around powerful people.

The Army does this really well. Let it be known that the new Colonel so and so, Command Sergeant Major so and so, the new General whatever is coming and stress factor goes through the roof. Protocol gets called, impromptu inspections happen, latrines get cleaned and food that never gets eaten is brought out.

Elisha sends his servant… to the guy that commands thousands… to tell him to take a bath. Yeeahhh, that happened.

General Naaman is not impressed.

I’ve been around leadership when they get bad news before and I’m guessing that the writer here chose to leave out the more colorful language. The General is not used to candor and he is not used to being ridiculous orders given by lesser people.

“What is wrong with my rivers?” What is wrong my my lands?” The General rightly asks. Insult is added to injury. Elisha does not come out. Does not offer the respect due the man.

What is Naaman expecting here? What is he wanting?

Ritual. Holy. Sacred. Ritual.

He wants the Prophet to come and do what prophets do. Wave his arms, put him in a stressful position, make him drink some kind of nasty drink, sacrifice a bull or two. Make a show, make a spectacle. This is what prophets do!!

The General is used to a certain way of doing things. He is, as we are, resistant to change and takes pleasure out of things being done in a complicated and powerful way. He has a skin condition that has bothered him for years and this prophet tells him to go wash?? Common!! At least give me a show!

Ritual does that for us. It gives us a connection to the past and the “warm fuzzies” that it’s all going to be ok. By they way, it does not matter what ritual a person ascribes to, it accomplishes the same thing. I enjoy and connect with ancient rites of worship, confession and pardon, robes, stoles, call and response, etc. There was a time in my life when I connected with loud, epic worship music, lights, drums, production value. Ritual is ritual. We like what we like for whatever reason it connects with us.

The problem is when we attach significance to the ritual.

As though the ritual itself is what matters.

Naaman, the Aramite, worships the God Rimmon, the chief Aramite deity – the God of storm and war. You can imagine what kind of ceremonies would be necessary in the worship of the god of storm and war!

Elisha speaks for God. Yahweh is the God of gods. Elisha speaks the Word of God, a word of promise and command. A word that demands not ritualistic dancing about but obedience. A simple command costs the proud General more than he is willing to pay.

He must humble himself, take the word of the servant as the word of the prophet, as the word of Yahweh, and go take a bath in a sub-par river. Simple, direct, devoid of ritual and symbolism, easy and terribly difficult.

What a symbol of God’s grace! Forgiveness is not something to be worked for or attained through struggle – it is asked and received. The cost is pride.

We humans love to put a price on it though. It is never enough to just be forgiven, we need to pay a little first. Maybe it’s because I’m a prison chaplain right now but daily I witness the destructive nature of our refusal to forgive. Inmates can’t forgive themselves, Christians will not forgive other Christians, children will not forgive parents, parents will not forgive their children.

Forgiveness cannot be earned, else it it not forgiveness.

This is not to say that people are not to be held accountable, they must be. This is not to say that people should not experience the natural consequences of their behavior – they should. I am saying that the call to forgive frees us from carrying that burden.

Forgiveness is given freely, without restraint, or it is not forgiveness. It is a debt that has been re-payed not forgiven – its just that the terms are changed.

Forgiveness is an act that takes place with the offended not the offender. Rage is carried by the offended. Anger is nurtured by the offended. Thus forgiveness, the releasing of the offender from their debt, can only happen with the offended.

It is freely given by God.

If we confess. If we humble ourselves. If we seek it.

Saints, there is no twelve-step program, 40 day Bible study, degree or special book that can give us peace of mind. It is simple seeking out of forgiveness and accepting that it has happened. We’ll still have to live with the ramifications of our sins but us and God will be ok. Clear.

I love this story. I love the human element. The proud general getting convinced by his staff that maybe it’s worth a try. The despairing king getting bailed out by the prophet confident in his God. The young handmaiden who just wants her master’s most valued general to be healed. The greedy servant (oh it gets better…)

The best parts of our faith are the simplest. They are stripped from the dogma we surround them in. They transcend the cultural rituals that we wrap them in. They say the same thing no matter the story – God loves all of us. God is willing to extend grace to ALL of us. We need to swallow our pride and obey.

Epilogue: As an aside to this story, the General claims Israel’s God as his own. He does ask for one exception though from Elisha – when he goes home to serve his King, he’s going to have to worship at the alter of Rimmon (since that is still the chief deity in Aram) – would that be ok? He asks the prophet. “Go in peace.” Is the answer. Elisha seems to give him the clearance to worship this other god since it’s a necessary part of his role as a general to his king and country. Isn’t that interesting…

Mothers and Goats.

Sermon, Theology

Mother’s Day is complicated.

For some, it’s this wonderful day filled with joy and excitement, love and comfort, poorly made breakfasts and eating out. For others, it’s a reminder of death. It’s a reminder of failure. A reminder that all the struggles to have children didn’t work out and judgments passed on those who choose for perfectly fine reasons not to have children.

Sometimes, Mother’s Days feels a little like “celebrating the fertility gods…”

During the Civil War and long after, Ann Jarvis had founded Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in Grafton, WV and five other cities to improve sanitary and health conditions. The Mothers’ Day Work Clubs also treated wounds, fed, and clothed both Union and Confederate soldiers with neutrality. A great legacy to mothers and their labors to better the world we live in. On May 12, 1907, two years after her mother’s death, Anna held a memorial to her mother and thereafter embarked upon a campaign to make “Mother’s Day” a recognized holiday. It was an opportunity to recognize what mothers go through and sacrifice to raise children. It was, and is, an opportunity to highlight that poverty and struggle exists for some mothers. She succeeded in making this nationally recognized in 1914. The International Mother’s Day Shrine was established in Grafton to commemorate her accomplishment.

By the 1920s, Anna Jarvis had become soured by the commercialization of the holiday. She incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association, trademarked the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day”, and was once arrested for disturbing the peace. She and her sister Ellsinore spent their family inheritance campaigning against what the holiday had become. Both died in poverty. According to her New York Times obituary, Jarvis became embittered because too many people sent their mothers a printed greeting card. As she said,

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.

—Anna Jarvis.

Mother’s Day is complicated.

It’s complicated because we are complicated. We humans relate to one another in complicated ways. We have these great intentions but somehow, like Mother’s Day, it does not translate into the legacy we’re wanting to leave. Anna Jarvis had a vision of celebrating her mother, she had a vision of celebrating mothers everywhere but somehow that vision became blurred. When other’s started to carry the torch and started to make the day their own, it became something that Anna looked at with distain – “it’s not me!!”

…Cause parenting is never like that!!…

My own mother died 13 years ago this June. Mother’s day is complicated. I have three children who have an amazing mother and I celebrate her today. I also miss my mother. My mother’s mother died recently. They had a complicated relationship. It wasn’t always good. It wasn’t always pretty. It wasn’t always breakfast in bed, soft hair brushing sessions, saintly talks and iconic paintings. It was sometimes dark and moody. Stormy and frightening. Kind of like the relationship I had with my mom.

One of my fondest memories of my mother was out on the “farm” in Michigan. My mother was idealistic. She had these great dreams of simple living and independent subsistence – living off the land. We kids lived out that dream for better and for worse!

One year, we got goats. Little, jet black African Pygmy goats with white stripes down their throats – I hated them. I mean, they were cute until I had to care for them. Let me take that back, they were cute for about a day. Then the stinkin’ male, “Buck” put his little horns on me and we had a “hate/hate” relationship from that day on. We would milk them… have you ever tried to milk a pygmy goat? It is everything you could imagine. A bit like milking pencils. That bite. And kick. And crap all over you. Seriously cramped my style.

One year, my parents went to Pensacola for school leaving me and my sister home to hold down the fort. Buck gets into 50 pounds of corn feed. 50 pounds of corn feed. Do you know what that does to a goat? 50 pounds of corn feed? Bloat. Gas. Impeding death.

I walked in on a bloated goat staring up at me and immediately my life passed before my eyes. This was bad. There was no way I could tell my mother that I let the goat eat itself to death. I called my grandma Dee. She raised goats, she would know what to do. She laughed. Literally laughed out loud when I explained my plight. When she stopped laughing she helped me understand the proper way to help a goat pass gas.

I hated those goats.

We had the goats a couple years. The second winter, Buck got sick. Started acting funny and within a day went from ok to expired. I watched his little life spiral away. I was not sad. I mean, I didn’t do a little happy dance or anything, but I didn’t really grieve either.

Mom said to bury it out in the field.

January. Michigan. There was no burying of the goat that was going to happen that day!

But then, I was not about to tell my mother that. You didn’t really contradict my mom. You nodded and said, “yes ma’am.”

So what was a 16 year old boy to do with a goat that he hated?

Rigor mortis was setting in by the time I got around to taking care of the goat. The day was just starting to end, sun going down and it was cold. I stood in the darkening barn and stared at that goat. What to do? I saw a trash barrel and being the “inventive” young man who effectively sought for the “low hanging fruit” (some people call this lazy but they just don’t get me) I put the goat in the barrel. I mean, it was as good as place as any until I could figure out how to bury it in the frozen ground.

When I put the goat in the barrel, his hooves stuck out and it struck me as kind of funny since… oh stop! Don’t judge me. I was 16. I was burying a goat. On a farm. If you grew up like that, you would have a macabre sense of humor too…

So there the goat was, half in a barrel frozen in death looking like it was just about to jump out. I arranged it just so… looked taxidermied. By then, it was dark and I needed to do homework. I went back into the house knowing that I’d take care of it tomorrow some time. For the record, my sister thought it was funny too.

Later that night, I was reading in my room when my sister Emily pounds on the door. POUNDS!!

“Jon, mom went to get wood!”

“What? Ok. Why would I care?”

“Jon! Mom. Went. Out. To. Get. Wood…. IN THE BARN!!!”

My heart dropped to my feet.  I could see my burgeoning basketball career ending in years worth of grounding. I ran down the stairs as fast as I could go. I tore through the dining room and out the kitchen door…

…just in time to hear a blood curdling scream come echoing from the barn across the snowy lawn. I watched frozen in terror as the beam of my mother’s flashlight shot up and down reflecting her arm movements as she strode back through the deep snow towards the house.

There was nothing to say. There was no excuse. There was no escape.

“JONATHAN RANSOM FISHER! YOU DID NOT BURY THAT GOAT!!!”

I haven’t thought of that story in years but this mother’s day, it came to my mind. My mom died of brain cancer in June 2000. I was miles away in Idaho. I got the call on in the morning. I arranged a flight home that afternoon. The traveling singing group I was singing tenor for said goodbye with reassuring hugs as I was driven to the airport by a church deacon I can’t even remember in a beat up old red S10. My life had changed that day and I could not even know how. I could not even imagine what the future would hold.

I missed mother’s day that year. I had been home but Mom wanted me to keep my word to the ensemble group and the college. I was in Idaho. I don’t have any memories of that time except that my group was awesome. They were so kind. The chaos of my life reflected in their eyes.

Mother’s day is complicated.

Legacy is complicated. We hope that people will carry on what we have given them. I hope my children will carry the torch I bore from my mother/father, her’s from her’s and on it goes.

Jesus, in John 17, is praying for us. That we would carry the Legacy.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Its part of a greater prayer in this chapter and ends with our role in the coming Kingdom of God. The coming Kingdom of justice and mercy. The coming Kingdom of love and compassion.

The prayer has a present and future reference. It is a prayer, first, that disciples to whom God gave to Jesus may be one and, second, that those who “will believe” may be one and those present and future disciples may become “one.” Did we do it? I’m not sure sometimes… ok, most times…

Unity is never a fixed reality to be taken for granted as accomplished. Rather, it is an ongoing gift from God, who makes it possible to us, and an ongoing demand if we are, indeed to carry out our mission of bringing “the world” to the knowledge that “you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (v.23) Saints, our unity is the testimony that the “lost” need to experience. It is the testimony that Jesus was and is real.

Our unity.

God sends Jesus as the “Word” – logos – the very expression of God. We know God through the testimony of the Word. We know God through the incarnation of Christ. Jesus notes in this prayer that others know Christ by us. By our unity. By our love. They know Christ through us and God through Christ. That’s the mission. Unity. Love.

What about doctrine? What about dogma? What about worship? What about…

Unity. Love.

Saints, we are the second body of Christ. We are a revelation of Jesus. When we do right, Jesus does right. When we are hateful and bigoted, Jesus is hateful and bigoted. When we justify evil speech and call it Scripture, it become’s Jesus word. When we beat each other up over silliness and trite ideas, it is Jesus. That becomes the legacy. That becomes the testimony. That becomes the Word.

Hands. Feet.

These are not metaphorical, esoteric ideas in a dusty book of theological reflection – it is real! Literal! When I stand at an inmate’s door in solitary confinement, it is as a representation of the body of Christ. When I crawl next to a Soldier huddled behind the safety of a humvee wheel in Iraq, it is Christ huddling next to him. When I curse in anger and frustration, it is the voice of Christ. Christ represents God. I represent Christ.

Sara and were talking about this. She noted: As the Body of Christ, we rejoice with those who rejoice and we suffer with those who suffer. We show the love of God when we grieve with those who grieve. We show the love of God to our kids as model love to them. We show the love of God when we stand together as a body and don’t focus on our division. We show the WORLD the love of God by loving each other within the Body. The Body is ONE, it says. If we cut our arm, we bandage it. We care for it.

We in the Army realize this a little more than others I think. It is drilled into us that we represent the Army wherever we go. Whenever I put on a uniform, I am the Army to whomever I meet.

We are a family. We care for one another. Life is stressful enough without us beating each other up! We have surrogate grandparents, surrogate dads for kids whose dads are gone, surrogate moms for those who have gone to serve. We share the common suffering and the common pain.

We do this as an Army family and as a church family. We care for one another and so fulfill the law of Christ. Let us continue. Let us lay aside those things that come between us and live out the Gospel, the answer to Christ’s prayer. The testimony that He is risen! He is risen indeed!

13-19 Now I’m returning to you.
I’m saying these things in the world’s hearing
So my people can experience
My joy completed in them.
I gave them your word;
The godless world hated them because of it,
Because they didn’t join the world’s ways,
Just as I didn’t join the world’s ways.
I’m not asking that you take them out of the world
But that you guard them from the Evil One.
They are no more defined by the world
Than I am defined by the world.
Make them holy—consecrated—with the truth;
Your word is consecrating truth.
In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world,
I give them a mission in the world.
I’m consecrating myself for their sakes
So they’ll be truth-consecrated in their mission.

20-23 I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.
The same glory you gave me, I gave them,
So they’ll be as unified and together as we are—
I in them and you in me.
Then they’ll be mature in this oneness,
And give the godless world evidence
That you’ve sent me and loved them
In the same way you’ve loved me. (The Message)

 

Tribal Love.

Sermon

We came up in tribes. We naturally divide into tribes. Some scholars suppose that the human brain can only recognize about 150 people as fully developed relationships. Beyond 150, we need to resort to “hierarchical schemes and stereotypes” to make sense of the world around us.

150 people is alot of people!                                    … and hardly any. Look at your facebook…

Our natural state in the “hunter/gatherer” society was to divide up into tribes. Our tribes were social in nature. Inclusive. In your tribe, you wouldn’t meet many new people. You would stay in the same basic place for weeks, months, years – maybe your whole life.

In New Guinea, anthropologists have studied similar cultures that still operate this way. In fact, if two men meet out in the jungle, they will sit down and go through their entire family history looking for a connection, looking for some common thread – if they can find one, they don’t have to fight! There might be a lesson there. I wonder what it would be like if we spent, oh I don’t know, 5 minutes seeking to understand one another, seeking for what we have in common – before we unload on other another!

Tribes help us make sense of the world. If we just hang out with people like us, we’ll be comfortable, we’ll be more at ease with our world. But then, it’s a global world so we often have to interact with the “other.” The one who isn’t in our tribe, they are not in our little world. What is different, what feels different, what looks different, is a threat to the integrity of our tribe. It’s a threat to our worldview. It’s  a threat to the way we understand the world.

What does your tribe look like? Who gets to be “in” and who gets pushed “out?” What are the significant features of your tribe? What does the language sound like? What are the symbols? The rituals? The artifacts and ceremonies?

What does your god look like? Tribal gods. Everyone has them. Its that attribute of God that makes the most sense to the tribe. Its that part of God that  gives meaning and a sense of “rightness” to the tribe. Thats a tribal god.

Tribal gods are a reflection of the culture. They are reflections of the values, principles, and prejudices of the culture. They reflect us. For better and for worse.

Of course, as a Christian believer, I hold to the theology that there is only One God. This God transcends other gods. This God is understood through the sacred writings known as the Bible, through the testimony of professed followers, and through the very Nature around us. Clearly, my God isn’t tribal.

Except when I start to define God as such.

When I make God in my image, when I speak for God, when I get to say what God hates and what God loves, I am starting to define what my tribal god looks like. Herein is the rub, how do I follow my calling to preach and avoid painting God in my image?

I grew up in West Michigan. A place “settled” and certainly shaped by the influence of the Dutch. Grand Rapids oozes the Dutch influence. The religion is strongly reformed. I like to joke that everyone in Grand Rapids is at least a little Calvinist. The Methodists lean that way, the Baptists lean that way, even the Catholics are not without the influence of the god of the Reformation!

Here’s the thing – it’s not that somehow my tribal god is not the Almighty I grew up worshipping – it’s that we Christians tend to shape our tribal god by emphasizing the parts that we like, the parts we relate most to. If we relate to the god of the Old Testament, we tend to shape our God in that fashion. Our New Testament God seen through Christ is still vengeful, still angry, still desiring of our fear – our worship reflects this, our stories reflect this, our preaching reflects this.

The God that some worship is still a violent God. A god of wrath and thunder. A warlike, masculine god that sends armies of angels to fight our battles. The remnant that remains struggles to survive the onslaught of the Wicked One and we fight in great spiritual battles. Everything become shaped by this idea and soon simple conversations about what to decorate the county courthouse lawn become moments of epic battle! A conversation about who gets to “marry” (whatever that means) gets painted in terms of the great apocalyptic battles in Revelation. Cause that’s not tribal at all…

Saints, are we even making an attempt to understand the Other? Are we even trying to see life from another tribes point of view? What exactly are we fighting for? How are we being known? Is this what our god looks like?

John writes to brand new, baby movement. It has grown out of the singular teachings and traditions established by Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples. The story of the earliest Church is the story of a transformation of a tribal God into something bigger, something grander, something different than the world had know to this point. When John writes his gospel, he calls to memory what is important for this group to know. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke write their stories into the collective memory of Christ, John aims squarely at the problems that are coming to the front of this burgeoning faith. He, having the benefit of hindsight, is able to emphasize the parts of the story he believes this new religion needs to remember.

A main theme throughout his Gospel? Love. “For God so loved the word (cosmos) that he gave…” This is not the traditional Jewish view. This is not the Roman view or the Hellenistic view. This is something different. John himself is a sufferer at the hands of the growing persecution. He does not have a good reason to be inclusive. He is in a real battle – not some perceived threat to culture – a very real struggle that violates his very person.

And he writes of love.

Thinking through everything that the new Church needs to remember about Jesus, thinking through everything that this Body needs, through what Paul has been writing, through what the missions movement has accomplished, thinking through Peter, James, Judas, Thomas, Philip, Junia – what his brother and sister Apostles have endured – he recalls to mind Jesus’ imperative to them:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Read the entire chapter if you can. I envision John leaning up against a rough door frame somewhere on the Island of Patmos, an eager scribe sits next to him writing down what the revered Apostle can remember of his time with Jesus. John is the oldest, the last remaining Apostle who walked and talked with Jesus. Already, Jesus was becoming the stuff of legend and tales. Already, there were battles about who Jesus was and what Jesus taught and what it meant to follow the prophet from Nazareth. But here, leaning against door, sipping water from a clay cup sits one who actually knew what was important to Jesus. He begins the chapter as the narrator:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” I love this. What does the old man remember? Jesus loved him and all the rest “till the end.” John associates what Jesus does with the love that God showed to the world by sending his Son. John, who started the Gospel by declaring Jesus as the “logos” the “very expression of God” in human form, remembers the Jesus loved them right to the Cross.

The next two stories that precede our text are expressions of that Love. Jesus, coming from God and going to God, knowing the everything has been given to him, takes the place of a servant, takes off his outer robe, puts the towel on his shoulder and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus loved them unto the end. He showed by service.

Then, he prophesies that Judas would betray him. As a master storyteller, John puts us there, we feel the tension in the room – “what you are going to do, do quickly.” The disciples are shocked, angry, and afraid as Judas leaves. Then our text picks up:

“When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.   If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What is to be the new artifact? What is to be the symbol of this new religion? Right doctrine? Right actions? Earnestly contending for the faith? Getting it all correct? Having the right answers? Protecting the judeo/christian culture? Is that what the disciples will be remembered for?

It is certainly not what John remembers Jesus wanting.

Love.

Later, John would ask Peter, not “is your doctrine correct Peter?” Not, “do you love my church Peter?” Not, “do you love the liturgy Peter?” Not, “have you the right apologetic to defend me to atheists Peter?”

He asks, “do you love me?”

Saints, it is so easy to give in to the god of violence and power. It is so easy to emphasize the parts of God that are most like us. It is so easy to declare that God is on my side and everyone who is against me and my perception of reality is clearly against God – but that is so small. It’s so limited.  God is SO much bigger than the stunted little world a barely understand.

Jesus calls us to something far more difficult than learning and defending dogma. Something far more difficult and challenging than picketing or voting or screaming in an online forum battle – Christ calls us to love.

When our tribe comes out and interacts with all the other tribes in the world, let us be known, not by what we are against, what we hate, what we declare that God hates, but by who we love; how we love; the overwhelming concreteness of our love.

Its simple. Its profound. Its so challenging because it demands so much of us.

They will know that we are Christians by our love.

Meditation on “Suffering Well”

Sermon, Theology

Text: Acts 9:1-20

I’ve been into a song recently: “I Vow to Thee my Country,”  a British patriotic song, created in 1921, when a poem by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice was set to music by Gustav Holst. I’ve loved the tune long before I ever knew it is also a song because the music of Holst has so long entranced me.  The words are very obviously an English patriotic song:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

 

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,

Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,

And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.

I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,

I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

 

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

“Her pride is suffering.” This line jumps out at me. Just like this phrase jumped out at me in our Text, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 1:16) God will show Saul how much he will need to suffer after taking the name “Paul.” In other words, “don’t worry about making Saul suffer Ananias, I’ve got that well in hand.” God, in order to accomplish God’s work on Earth through this newly minted Apostle – will show Saul suffering.

Is God’s pride suffering?

Suffering does in fact become a point of pride for us. Why do we do that? We even give it badges and tabs – airborne badges are not significant because someone jumps out of a plane (anyone who goes to a vacation spot can skydive with minimal instruction) it becomes something because of the school that goes with it. The suffering.

This is true across cultures. Suffering is worn as a badge of pride. If, somehow, a group can attach some kind of ribbon, award, t-shirt etc to suffering – hey, if we take your picture and put it on the wall, would you eat some kind of “ghost-pepper-habanera laced-pure gasoline-donut?” We do this because there is a measure of pride in our suffering. It’s that pride one gets when they are like, “I had all my children in a barn on top of hay with no anesthesia.” Look at me – I suffered through. See the badges on my arm? See the ribbons on my chest? I was there!

Suffering is a way to distinguish the truly motivated from the “posers.”

Suffering has been, for ages, a way to prove your worth. Show you are serious. Demonstrate that you are for real. Something to aspire to. Something to revel in.

Those who have “been there” often minimize the sufferings of others since they “weren’t there.” Sometimes suffering becomes politicized and abused – images of suffering become the stuff of commercials.

Suffering is cheapened. The video of the Soldier coming home to see their loved ones becomes something used to sell cars and insurance. A cheap shot – appealing to the emotions.

There is physical suffering. Mental Suffering. Spiritual suffering.

But the best suffering, the suffering deified in books, plays, and movies is that which suffers for another. We tend to see suffering as a way to get past politics and religion. Suffering somehow validates the message and the messenger.

It was suffering that brought down the british empire in India. Suffering that ended eras of discrimination in this country. Collective suffering has ended bitter wars. Of course, it is also suffering that extends them when people talk about the idea of “we can’t end it – think of the blood and treasure already spent…”

There are really only two kinds of suffering:

1. The Suffering that is a part of the human condition – the suffering that we all have because it’s just a part of life. The suffering that is necessary because to have happiness, you must have sadness. To have pleasure, you must have pain. To have the beautiful flowers of spring, we must have clouds and rain. One does not exist without the other.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism recognizes the reality of human suffering. The first truth is that there IS suffering, the second is the origin of suffering, the third is the cessation of suffering and finally the path to cessation of suffering.

Life is full of suffering. To suffer is to live. We can fight it, we can avoid it, we can shape our lives so as to discourage it as much as possible, we can muddle through it but in the end, everyone will suffer.

I spent Friday at Kansas University listening to a professor talk about depression – how it is actually, like obesity, a disease of civilization. It is a disease of affluence and abundance. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors (we know this by studying those who still live in those types of societies) knew nothing of depression. Depression comes because of our comfort. Even when we shape our lives to absolute comfort, that pursuit alone can be suffering.

2. The second type of suffering we experience is the suffering that comes as a natural consequence to the choices we make. Those choices can be good and we can suffer as a result or bad and suffering can still be there.

All this is in anticipation of a phrase from our Text this morning that jumped out at me. In Acts chapter 9, Luke recounts the salvation of Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul has been about the business of persecuting those Jews who are challenging the established norms of power. Those people who are challenging the powers that control Jewish life through religion. Their leader was dead, they have been driven out of Jerusalem and now, Saul gets permission to pursue holy war against them in Damascus.

Of course, the more power is applied to the problem, the greater the problem becomes. Saul, on the road to Damascus has a classic trance experience. He sees a bright light, hears a message from God that changes his entire paradigm about the world around him, and finally interprets the experience as a calling to do something about it.

Of course, no one would believe him, why should they? He went all Gestapo on them! He CAUSED great suffering.

Ananias is afraid and should be. There is nothing about this situation that is a good thing. The man God is telling him to visit has been killing his people. Killing. In that situation maybe I would be tempted to rebuke this evil spirit that is calling me to interact with evil. Clearly can’t be a message from God!

Ananias goes. He accepts the calling by faith. In so doing, he plays a pivotal role in the Christian story. With Paul, the whole thing changes. With Paul, the whole thing shifts. What if Ananias had said, “no?”

Here’s the phrase, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” God will show Paul that suffering is a part of this calling. The Message puts it this way, “And now, I’m about to show him what he’s in for – the hard suffering that goes with this job.”

The suffering that goes with this job.

Why does Luke want us to see this? To know this? Because so much suffering has already happened. Think about it, there is really only one way for Paul to show that he’s not up to evil purposes and the testimony of Ananias is only going to go so far! All this hearing messages from God isn’t going to convince people who are full of fear! Paul will suffer as a natural consequence of his choices and that suffering will validate that his has truly been called of God.

You see, over the centuries, one of the things that has consistently validated the testimony of Christ-followers has not been dogma – it has been “suffering well.”

It is a hard saying no doubt but that does not make it any less true – when we suffer and maintain our testimony, our beliefs are validated.

Suffering is talked about, recorded, and struggled to be interpreted throughout the Scripture and it is beyond the scope of this morning to address it fully but we will look at one passage – I Peter 3. In this text, Peter writes to a church that is starting to experience what suffering really is all about. He assures this new Church that when they suffer for God, it is good. It is right. It is a blessing – so long as it is done with a clear conscience. So long as they are in the right and suffering it is a privilege.

Maybe you could even say, “Her pride is suffering.”

Of course, if you are suffering, as Paul notes, because of murdering, theft, or “meddling in others business” then you’re on your own! Good luck with that because there isn’t much to be gained there!

Here’s the thing: We love to claim that our suffering is of Christ, for Christ when sometimes we’re just suffering the natural consequences of our poor choices or the ramifications of our actions. If we are jerks and people don’t like us, it doesn’t validate the message of Christ, it just makes us look like jerks. When the Body of Christ acts like little children and throws a temper tantrum every time we don’t get our way and people start treating us accordingly, it does not have much to do with bearing the Cross.

Cancer is not a test from God. Diabetes is not a test from God. Failing one’s APFT is not a test from God. It is suffering, but not from God. How you respond to these types of suffering is, however, a profound testimony of faith.

Saints, suffer well. Know that Christ has suffered from you and before you. Many have walked the paths you now tread. Some have walked them and validated the message of their faith, others (like me) have walked those paths and come up a bit short. That’s ok. Everyday is a new opportunity to be the Body. To demonstrate the Love. To enjoy the blessing of walking through this life with Christ.

We all suffer. Anyone looking at these words are either recovering from, about to start, or are deep in the throes of suffering. Part of being in the Body is that we do not have to suffer alone. We are in Christ and with each other. Let us support one another and encourage each other as we muddle through this life, suffering well.

You are God’s Now

Sermon

Remember what it was like the first time you went home after basic training? Or when you went home after being gone for some time, college perhaps or summer camp? There you were, having traveled, grown, been shaped, met people, done things, become something – but when you stood in the kitchen, talking to your mother and she looked at you cross-eyed because you forgot to take off your shoes – you just crumble.

Only two people in all the earth ever called me “Johnny,” my mother (who died in 2000) and my granny (great-grandmother, died at 101 a couple months ago). Two women who could call me anything they wanted. All the places I’ve been. All the people I’ve worked with. All the Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers, all the Soldiers I’ve served  – none of them called me Johnny. Most everyone I know calls me Sir, Chaplain, Captain, Chappy, Padre, or Dad. No one calls me Johnny. But I tell you, every time I walked in to see my Granny, blind though she be, she’d call me Johnny. Mom only said it when she was happy. It was a cue that she was pleased with me. If, on the other hand, she used my ENTIRE name – run. Run fast. Maybe that’s why I never wanted to be called Johnny.

That awkward moment when you remember that you are, and always will be, just a kid to your parents.

In our age, the expectation is to do better than your parents. It is a part of everyone’s family mythos in America to list off your humble roots. It’s the “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” idea. My great grandfather was a sharecropper. His daughter married a man who dies in prison, whose only daughter marries an alcoholic Navy Vet who dies at 51 of cirrhosis of the liver. One of their daughters runs away from home at 14, struggles to gain legitimacy through her considerable talents, marries a stable man and is my mother. Sara had a great uncle, moonshiner, who fled from the Feds all the way to Portland. My great grandfather on the father’s side worked in the northern Michigan logging industry. The GI Bill changed our family tree! In our culture, the expectation is upward movement.

This is emphatically, NOT the case in ancient Mediterranean culture. In fact, ideas of family honor and “place in society” are firmly embedded ideas in most cultures other than our own. In the Mediterranean world of antiquity, everyone had a proper place in society and this place was established by birth. No one was ever expected to become something better than or to improve on the lot of their parents. In fact, to do so was to cast some dishonor on your parents by saying that their place was not good enough for you. What they did was somehow dishonorable and you are going to do something different, more honorable.

Since towns were small and very interrelated, your choices as a family (and individual within that family) impacted everyone in the village. You do what you were born to do, what your father was born to do, what your grandfather was born to do. This kind of consistency, helped the culture deal with the changes that came from geopolitical forces they could not control. This fact is the basic foundation of honor, public claim to worth and a public acknowledgement of that worth by others. Each child inherits, carries on, and is expected to safeguard the family’s honor. In fact, throughout human history, this has under-girded societies. One of the challenges of globalization is that this is dramatically changed. The daughter of the rice farming family can, in fact, rise to great heights through education – but then, who farms the rice?

The people in Jesus’ hometown know him and his family well. The prose here in the Text is as dynamic and lively as any in the New Testament. You can see the separated classes in the Synagogue. The men up front, women in the back. All is quiet as the young man, Jesus son of Joseph, the carpenter, rises to read. Everyone remembers the questions around his birth. Joseph had to work particularly hard to overcome those stories but then, everyone needs a table! Jesus, the author Luke notes, is filled with the Holy Spirit and selects a reading that challenges their understanding. This isn’t a “awe, Joseph’s son reads so well! Bless his heart…” It’s a “wait. Isn’t this Joseph’s son, who does he think he is???”
14-15Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit. News that he was back spread through the countryside. He taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim and pleasure.

16-21He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,
God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!” He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”
22All who were there, watching and listening, were surprised at how well he spoke. But they also said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son, the one we’ve known since he was a youngster?” (The Message) 

Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, doesn’t make it any better. He puts himself in the same place as two of Israel’s greatest and most holy prophets. Elijah and Elisha. Really? Can’t read a crowd Jesus? They are not liking this.

23-27He answered, “I suppose you’re going to quote the proverb, ‘Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we heard you did in Capernaum.’ Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown. Isn’t it a fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah during that three and a half years of drought when famine devastated the land, but the only widow to whom Elijah was sent was in Sarepta in Sidon? And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.” 

28-30That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger. They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom, but he gave them the slip and was on his way. (The Message) 

In Jesus’s world, the basic rule of thumb is, “look at your family first.” It’s like opposite land to our contemporary worldview that sees that as nepotism. Jesus has a responsibility to care for his parents. He has a responsibility to care for the village that raised him. Gave him the benefit of the doubt when, clearly, his mother broke some very cardinal rules of society. There were those in the crowd who gave him business when they could have gone elsewhere. The village needs these rules to survive and Jesus is breaking them. This village needs their sons to grow up and do what they do NOT become healers and teachers. What if other young men get ideas about their self-worth. Who does he think he is?? The crowd gets hostile. They advance on Jesus. Push him toward a cliff. How dare he!! Take it back!!

Jesus escapes by walking through the crowd and away from Nazareth.

The author is writing this decades after Jesus death. He writes to the early Church. A persecuted church. A church struggling with what their identity is in the world. He deliberately highlights the mission of Jesus in the world – the restoration of a fractured world. The groups he is come to work with have all been rejected. None of them have worth to the world – blind, poor, prisoners, oppressed?? To a church struggling with a growing oppression, a church that is experiencing their daughters and sons being systematically hunted and destroyed – this is a life-giving identity. Who do we reach out to? The traditional religious leadership don’t want us, they hire people like Saul to hunt us down and stone us. The Romans are getting worse and worse. They demand that we say things like “Caesar is Lord” just to do business! They were struggling and Luke reminds them that Jesus came for them!! That the religious traditions they have left behind to follow in “The Way” have a dark side and they are right for this new path. I can see them, hearing this read in services, nodding, weeping, holding hands in the dark. It was right to follow this path. It is true.

Here is Jesus mission. It’s not to the local family, it’s bigger than that. It’s not to maintain honor, it’s bigger than that. It’s not limited to teaching, preaching, and fine theology – it’s practical, hands-on, and life changing.

Is Jesus’ Mission our mission?

The other day, I was visiting with an inmate. He struggled with the classic question of being spiritually healthy. He wanted so badly to serve but the “dark side” of his life seemed to close in. Seemed to crush out the part of him that wanted to serve God and others. Weeping, he spoke of just wanting to be healthy so that Jesus would love him. I listened. I waited. When the weeping had subsided. I said, “You are exactly who Jesus came for. You are exactly what God wants. You, in your depressed, struggling, sinning state is who Jesus loves. I seem to remember something about not coming for the “healthy” but the sick.” He started to smile. I showed him this passage and we talked about it. These words, recorded thousands of years ago about an event that took place decades earlier surrounding a dead prophet – these words, brought life.

Are you one of these groups? Jesus came for you. Are you wondering what the focus of your ministry and service should be? Look to these groups. Whatever you were – you are God’s now!

Light in the Darkness. Hope.

Sermon

Life is desperate sometimes. Desperation born out of “Acts of God” and “Acts of Man.” Days when there is no hope. To you saint, “Arise, shine. Your light has come.”

Isaiah 60:1-6 (NRSV)
60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
60:2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
60:3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
60:4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
60:5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
60:6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

My great-grandmother recently died. She was 101. She was born in 1911. A story I learned of just recently was of WWI. When it ended, she and her friend ran to the local church and rang the bell for an hour in celebration. She lived through all the seminal events of the 20th century. One that came up alot was the “Great Depression.”

Not everyone was in a state of depression when the stock market crashed in October 1929. The farmers of America’s Great Plains were enjoying the rewards of a bumper crop that year.
Everybody was looking decidedly down on Wall Street. Everything was looking up on the farms of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and the other wheat-producing states of the Plains.
Even in 1931, with the rest of the country in the grips of the Great Depression, things looked pretty good for these farmers. It seemed that the sky was the limit.
But then the sky betrayed them. The rains stopped, and these farmers were rocked by years of drought. Then the winds came, and nothing could prevent the years of devastation that followed.
Stripped of the deep-rooted grasses that kept topsoil in place, the overplowed land was swept away by apocalyptic dust storms. The region — and the collective events — became known as the Dust Bowl.

When drought struck from 1934 to 1937, the soil lacked the stronger root system of grass as an anchor, so the winds easily picked up the loose topsoil and swirled it into dense dust clouds, called “black blizzards.” Recurrent dust storms wreaked havoc, choking cattle and pasture lands and driving 60 percent of the population from the region. Most of these “exodusters” went to agricultural areas first and then to cities, especially in the Far West.

All across the plains states, cities, towns, villages emptied. Generational farms were simply abandoned. Life was without hope.

One of the characteristics of the storm was how dark it got. When the dust came, it was as though the sun was simply, blocked out.

My father was born during a dust storm on July 23, 1933 in Custer County, Oklahoma. According to my grandmother, their house was located in the country. In order for the doctor to find the house, a kerosene lantern was placed on a fence post. The birth went well and another baby boy was born in 1935. I should add that the second baby was not born during a dust storm. The family relocated to Nebraska in the late 1930s due to the Great Depression. They remained Nebraska where they became successful farmers. However, many of my grandmother’s relatives still live in Oklahoma.
— Judy Cantrell

People just left. Old men and women watched their children just pack up and leave. Schools graduated no one. Sports teams stopped playing, there was no one to play and no reason any more. Hopeless

This is the Dustbowl story of Bruce Campbell. It is excerpted from The Salt of the Earth, edited by Bernadette Tabor Pruitt (Evans Publishing Co., 1988). Campbell, of Checotah, Okla., died in 2011. His story was told to Randy Pruitt:
Bruce Campbell, like so many others, tried to ride out the Depression. However, it proved to be a wild horse nobody could saddle. Conditions in the 1930s continued to deteriorate, but what made it worse was the fact that people were depending on him: his mother, two brothers, two sisters, a wife and their baby. Campbell had become head of the household at age 19 when his father died. The drought in the summer of 1936 made his decision for him.
‘By the first of July, crops was all burnt up,’ he recalled. “By the middle of July, we had all the corn done cut off and fed green to the cows. The best cows in the country just brought $15 apiece.
“When I left Oklahoma, there wasn’t nothin’ to do, wasn’t no work to do. You didn’t have anything. It looked like starvation living anywhere you was at.”
Talk of California was drifting up and down the streets of Checotah and through back-road communities like Central High, Onapa and Mt. Nebo.
‘Cal Collins – he ran a school bus here in Onapa – he just kind of let it slide around that he was goin’ to California at a certain time and anybody that wanted to ride with him could for $10.”
Campbell and two good friends scrambled to find some money.
“I sold a pair of mule colts for $19,” he said. “When I got ready to go, I didn’t have but $28.” He used $10 of it to pay a friend’s way.
When the trio arrived to leave early that sultry August morning, they were surprised to find not 20 people – the number expected – but more.
“There was 30 of us on that truck,” he said, “20 men, five women and five kids.”
All Campbell took with him was a quilt and the clothes he wore.
The pace westward was slow and grueling. Campbell could still hear the overloaded one-ton Chevrolet truck straining up the hills in compound gear. “I was wondering if we was ever going to get there.”
They arrived September 1, after being on the road seven days and sleeping on the ground.
“We landed down there at Arvin. ‘Ragtown’, we called it. There was a string of tents as long as from here to that road up yonder,” he said, indicating a half mile. “I had two dollars and a quarter and I’d never been to California.
“I went to work two days after I got there for old Don Jay Kavokavitch on a grape farm. I worked there for a few days then went to picking cotton. I stayed there three weeks and then I went over to McFarland to a camp south of Greenfield to a grape vineyard. I stayed there two years.”
The migrant camp, he said, was filled with people, mostly from Oklahoma and Arkansas.
At one point, his wife and seven-month-old son joined him. They lived in a chicken house rented for $4 a month.
“When you went to the field to work in the day, they hauled your water out in 55-gallon barrels strapped down to an old trailer behind a cotton truck. That water was hot enough you could shave with it when you was drinkin’ it. The only time you could get a cool drink was early in the morning.”
Campbell lived alongside the destitute, people who looked like they weren’t going to hang on for another week.
“In the winter of ’36, lots of people was out of work and they wasn’t no welfare out there. I don’t know how some of ’em got by. Of course, a lot of ’em made it. You’d see ’em sittin’ around, didn’t have no jobs. I guess I been lucky. I could always get a job. Might not make much, but I could always get a job.”
California held few fond memories for Campbell. While many Oklahomans stayed, he chose to leave and never return.
“I didn’t leave nothin’ out there to go back after,” he said.
He returned to Oklahoma with $54.
“I came home and borrowed $35 from the bank to buy a horse with and made a one-horse crop in ’38 and ’39.”
Campbell had read The Grapes of Wrath. “It was just about as bad as it read. Some things was exaggerated a little and some things wasn’t bad enough.”
The Dustbowl is one memory that would be burned into his mind forever.
“We’ve had a lot of droughts but none as bad as ’36,” he said. “I’d planted cotton in May of ’36, barefooted, and my tracks were just as plain when I left in August as they’d been when I planted it. It was just dry enough my barefooted tracks was still there and cotton hadn’t come up.
“In September, when I was in California, I got a letter from my mother. ‘It rained,’ she wrote. ‘You got a real pretty stand of cotton.’ The cotton seed had laid there all summer.”
— Bernadette Pruitt

This is the story of of a hopeless people. This is the story of a people in need of something, anything to help them get through.

Of course, the story of the dust bowl is not just about no rain, its about how the earth was treated, how the land was changed and stripped bare by those that simply didn’t understand how their plowing up the native grasses would impact the soil. The rain stopped coming and the wind blew but there was nothing to keep the dirt down.

It was an “Act of God” but it was also an act of man.

Isaiah speaks to these people. He speaks life to these people.
That is the story of this passage. Isaiah preached to a people who had left the “old ways, the old paths.” They had abandoned their reason for being. They had stopped acting as the children of God.

This is “3rd Isaiah.” This book was not written in order, as one complete thought, it was written to specific audiences. This one are those who were left after Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem and sacked it. When he came it was terror. He sacked the city and took everything from it that meant anything. Took everything that had value and meaning. He destroyed the Temple and took thousands of the young. Took the craftsmen, the layers, the accountants, the doctors, the religious. He took them all and left in their place, the old, the broken, the weak.

Read their confession:

Isaiah 59:9-15 (The Message)
9-11 Which means that we’re a far cry from fair dealing, and we’re not even close to right living. We long for light but sink into darkness, long for brightness but stumble through the night. Like the blind, we inch along a wall, groping eyeless in the dark. We shuffle our way in broad daylight, like the dead, but somehow walking. We’re no better off than bears, groaning, and no worse off than doves, moaning. We look for justice—not a sign of it; for salvation—not so much as a hint.
12-1 5 Our wrongdoings pile up before you, God, our sins stand up and accuse us. Our wrongdoings stare us down; we know in detail what we’ve done: Mocking and denying God, not following our God, Spreading false rumors, inciting sedition, pregnant with lies, muttering malice. Justice is beaten back, Righteousness is banished to the sidelines, Truth staggers down the street, Honesty is nowhere to be found, Good is missing in action. Anyone renouncing evil is beaten and robbed.

The pain is palpable. They have failed. They are defeated. The image is that old Western you watched as a kid. The saloon, the sheriff’s office, the post/general store/hardware store. The bad guys are in town. The rain is pelting downward  turning the street into mud and muck. I love the image of Justice being beaten back. He wants to help. He wants to succeed but he is beaten down in the street. As he lays there in the blood and mud, Righteousness wants to come out but she has been banished. She is sidelined and has to watch, as a spectator, as Justice bleeds out, beaten by evil. Truth staggers down the street, drunk, in a stupor, unable to reveal anything – the function of truth. Materialism taken it’s place. Good is simply not there. Not anywhere. Nowhere to be seen. Evil is complete. The darkness has overwhelmed the town. Those who might dare to renounce it hide in their homes, afraid of anything and everything. They crouch behind broken glass afraid. In the dark, everything inspired terror. To the terrorized, they are powerless.

In the OT, God relates to a people. Not particularly individuals but a nation. In the NT, a change takes place where God interacts with the Kingdom, this kingdom made up of you and me. We are the kingdom of God. When we read these old texts, I wonder, have we ever been here? Have we walked that path? Has truth been drunk in our lives, unable to reveal anything to us because of the lies we keep telling ourselves? Has darkness ever overwhelmed your thoughts and your being? Has Righteousness been sidelined?

Have you ever felt this empty? Experienced that humiliation and depression of the “years the locusts took?” Watched your children, your dreams just up and walk away because of the blows that life and your decisions dealt you?

And 16-21
16-19 God looked and saw evil looming on the horizon— so much evil and no sign of Justice. He couldn’t believe what he saw: not a soul around to correct this awful situation. So he did it himself, took on the work of Salvation, fueled by his own Righteousness. He dressed in Righteousness, put it on like a suit of armor, with Salvation on his head like a helmet, Put on Judgment like an overcoat, and threw a cloak of Passion across his shoulders. He’ll make everyone pay for what they’ve done: fury for his foes, just deserts for his enemies. Even the far-off islands will get paid off in full. In the west they’ll fear the name of God, in the east they’ll fear the glory of God, For he’ll arrive like a river in flood stage, whipped to a torrent by the wind of God. (God’s coming in power. The marshal has arrived and it’s on!! He picks up Justice, heals him; lets Righteousness free from the sidelines; sobers up Truth; releases Good upon the town!! God is here and darkness is banished!!)
20″I’ll arrive in Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who leave their sins.” God’s Decree.
21″As for me,” God says, “this is my covenant with them: My Spirit that I’ve placed upon you and the words that I’ve given you to speak, they’re not going to leave your mouths nor the mouths of your children nor the mouths of your grandchildren. You will keep repeating these words and won’t ever stop.” God’s orders.

The passage begins with a reference to light. In the darkness, everything causes fear. In the darkness, little things seem overwhelming and terrifying – in the light, they lose their power. “The people that have walked in darkness have seen a great light, upon those, living in the shadow of death, a light has shined.” (9:2)

Light brings hope. Light brings life. What sustains the community – the only thing that can sustain us through all our crises – is the faith that we are loved by God and that we exist for a purpose. We are here for each other, for the world around us, for God. We are sustained by that great hope.

I love, love, love, the image that closes our text – “Lift up your eyes, they are coming home to you. Your sons. Your daughters.” They are not the same. They have been changed by the journey but here they are. This place will return to some glory. It will not be the same, it will be better for you are better. You are changed.

Saints, this year, this Epiphany – know that you are better. You are changed. You are different now than you were. This last year may have been a year of great pain and sorrow for you. Maybe you failed, put Justice, Righteousness, Truth and Goodness on the sideline, wallowed in the Darkness, watched it overtake your life. Saints, upon you, the Light of Christ has shined!!! You are not alone! You are not forgotten! You are favored by your God! Look Up! You are coming home.

Just as you had a hand in your destruction, you have a hand in your redemption. Come to Jesus. Come to the Light. Bask in the glory.

Isaiah 60:1-7 (The Message)

“Get out of bed, Jerusalem!
   Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight.
   God’s bright glory has risen for you.
The whole earth is wrapped in darkness,
   all people sunk in deep darkness,
But God rises on you,
   his sunrise glory breaks over you.
Nations will come to your light,
   kings to your sunburst brightness.
Look up! Look around!
   Watch as they gather, watch as they approach you:
Your sons coming from great distances,
   your daughters carried by their nannies.
When you see them coming you’ll smile—big smiles!
   Your heart will swell and, yes, burst!
All those people returning by sea for the reunion,
   a rich harvest of exiles gathered in from the nations!
And then streams of camel caravans as far as the eye can see,
   young camels of nomads in Midian and Ephah,
Pouring in from the south from Sheba,
   loaded with gold and frankincense,
   preaching the praises of God.

Amen.