Hold Fast

pptF9B.pptm - AutoRecovered

*Sermon preached on 18 Nov 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  These are challenging scriptures, but then they speak to challenging times… times that can rattle us and cause us to forget what truly grounds us in life, as those of faith.  That is the nature of scripture, it is always relevant!  Blessings, Vinson

Gospel of Mark 13:1-8 (New Revised Standard Version)

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.   When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Letter to the Hebrews 10:11-25 (New Revised Standard Version)

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.”  For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.  And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord:  I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”  Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.  Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

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INTRODUCTION

It was not long after I had started as a student minister to three rural congregations, when on one sunny Sunday morning that Fall, I came up the steps of a Victorian gingerbread church, greeting the men all gathered there and shaking hands.  It was then that one older gentleman said to me, “The Bible says you’re supposed to shave before you come into God’s temple.”  I wasn’t if I’d heard what I thought, so I asked him to repeat what he had just said, and I had indeed heard correctly.

I stood before him with a close-cropped beard about like now, absent of my present-day white hair, thinking what had I walked into, but then I noticed the reactions on the others and I relaxed.

He was on his own, and over the course of the next three years he would say this again to me on more occasions.  In those pre-Google days, sometime in my first year, thinking somehow I had overlooked an obscure verse buried in the 1100 pages of the Bible, so I finally decided to risk revealing that I didn’t have the Bible memorized.

I asked him where it was written about needing to be clean-shaven.

It was then that I discovered that he had contorted a verse from II Samuel into a rule that actually stood in contrast to the Levitical requirement to not shave – except as a sign of defeat or mourning.  And so on more that one occasion, I had to restrain my sarcastic wit from a rejoinder twisting another of David’s acts into an axiom, one that would have done nothing for either of us.

Well, I kept my beard… except for the later 24-year stretch in the Navy.

It gets tricky sometimes, reading God’s Word, and doing so as to not impose our own understanding upon what is written.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Yet, here stands this morning, the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, a letter unlike any others in the New Testament, with its challenge to live in hope, and more.

FOR INSTANCE

If there is any book more densely and eloquently written within the New Testament, than Hebrews, I don’t know which it would be.  Written before the destruction on the Temple in 70 AD, since it refers to the ongoing sacrifices being offered by the temple’s High Priest, the Letter to the Hebrews does not identify its author, unlike the rest of the New Testament books.  Some have wanted to ascribe it to Paul, but it isn’t his writing style, with its distinct theological thrust and spirituality.  And, let’s face it, Paul was the “John Hancock” of his day, always making sure it was clear in his letters that he authored them as an apostle of Jesus Christ.  No such signature line of his exists in this letter.

Even the ancient church historian Eusebius, writing in the mid-second century, only hazarded a guess that it might have been written by Bishop Clement, in spite of its different writing style than any of Clement’s existing letters of the late first century and other factors.

Hebrews may reflect, as one church historian has remarked, “a deliberate blackout more than a case of collective loss of memory.”  So if it has also been speculated it was by Barnabas, who had accompanied Paul on missionary journeys, or Apollos of whom Paul spoke of… my money is on Priscilla, a clear leader in Rome.  Given the preponderance of women disciples, prophetesses, and leaders denoted in the Gospels and Paul’s letters to the first generation church, and then their complete disappearance from the recorded scene after the death of the last apostle, all I can think of is a remark on the matter as a “conspiracy of anonymity in the ancient church.”  All of this may be why one reason early Christian writers and historians noted its difficulty in being accepted as part of the Christian canon that would become the New Testament.

So what do we know…

We do know is that its audience was to Jewish Christians, likely a small home church in Rome, where there was a large Jewish population in the Diaspora.

We do know is that things were getting challenging for them.  The Emperor Nero had arisen and public harassment, imprisonment, and confiscation of property had begun, and eventually it would include move toward martyrdom.  It was darkening times, indeed.

We do know that of such times Jesus had spoken, as in our reading from Mark when he and the disciples were departing from the Temple complex.  One disciple, impressed with the imposing structures, had said: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!,” to which Jesus replied: “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  Winter was coming.  There were no flames or Roman armies yet laying siege, but Jerusalem would indeed fall, and even the behemoth stones as much as 80-tons, would be thrown down.

It really can seem incomprehensible that great edifices and the societies they represent can be destroyed, and yet we may recall how 12 years ago amid the banking crisis the idea that they were “too big to fail” came crashing to earth along with our economy.

It really can seem incomprehensible that great edifices and the societies they represent can be destroyed, just as much as it is difficult to grasp the magnitude of the terrible fires currently sweeping through California, laying waste to more than 231 square miles of forests and fields, with two towns destroyed, almost 12,000 structures burned, something like 1,000 people missing, and 71 found dead… even as volunteers continue the tough task of sifting through ashes in search of others’ remains.

It really can seem incomprehensible that great edifices and the societies they represent can be destroyed, and yet we only have to look at how ours and how in a short space of time it’s been reshaped by the politics of some so that we appear to be an embittered land of plenty, one that perverts the goodness of our land and people into something to be subtracted from, lifting up those who would tear down and not build, destroy and not create, use up and not give…

– with immigrants cast as takers, instead of the builders whom they are;

– with non-Christians cast as unworthy, instead of honored as those also created in God’s image;

– with insurance for those with pre-existing health issues treated as not an obligation of our society, in a twisted form of victim-blaming;

– with students seeking a better life being held ransom, with loanshark interest rates making them all but indentured servants;

– with people of color finding themselves recast as somehow not worthy of the 14th Amendment’s protection, instead of people also endowed with the same inalienable rights as the rest of us;

– with environmental concerns as something to be cast aside in the name of profits, with land, air and sea polluted, as though the generations to come are owed nothing.

Yet, it is precisely against this incomprehensible, that we hear Jesus can say “Do not be alarmed,” even as he gives us these words of caution:  “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.”  As Paul wrote to Timothy in the 4th chapter of his letter, “ For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”  And so it is we now see such things as the heresy of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” distorting scriptures and ignoring others to justify a theology and lifestyle of building bigger barns, while blaming those who suffer as somehow deserving of it.”

Yet, it is precisely against the incomprehensible, that the word of Hebrews calms us, saying: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”  We are empowered by His word, His hope, His love – to make this covenant apparent through the living of our lives, in contrast and challenge to the forces of confusion.

Yet, it is precisely against the incomprehensible, we are reminded “…let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Embedded in the Greek words in which this is written is the understanding that whether here on Sunday morning or wherever – we are ALWAYS a gathered community in Christ, for what is mistranslated as “church” in most English Bibles, isn’t something we go to, IT IS WHO WE ARE..  We as Christians, cannot forsake our assembly because we’re always assembled before God as those literally referred to as the “called out” of the community to become members of the body of Christ in the world.

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all of this?  Tucked into the rich words of Hebrews, the writer adds, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

Every Sunday I enjoy looking upon the sailing ship in the stained glass, not just because I was a sailor, but because it’s a reminder of this congregation’s heritage rooted at one time near the shipyard.  It reminds me of how in days past, sailors working the rigging of sailing ships would often have their knuckles tattooed with just two words on the four front-facing fingers of each hand:  “Hold Fast.”  A way to remember they weren’t going to let go, no matter what.

Amen,

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A Love That Won’t Let Go

pptF9B.pptm - AutoRecovered*Sermon preached on 11 Nov 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  It was good to be back in the pulpit this past Sunday after break due to some health issues. I am very grateful for the kindness of many, especially my congregation in giving me time to recover from pneumonia.  Ruth has always intrigued me as a person, perhaps because there is this circa 1860 painting of Ruth that I grew up with in our home.  It only shows her face from an oblique angle and there is just something powerful in the image.  As for the reading, I would encourage you to read not just the portion in the lectionary, but the whole distance from Ruth 3:1 to 4:17.  Blessings, Vinson

Book of Ruth 3:1-5 & 4:13-17 (New Revised Standard Version)

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.  Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.   Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.  When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”  She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son.  Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!  He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”  Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.  The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

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INTRODUCTION

In William Shakespeare’s play, Henry V (Act IV, Scene III), the king gives a rousing speech before battle as some perceive odds that do not favor the English army against the larger French force.  Key among the king’s words are these:

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered –

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

These words have ruminated in my mind of late, not because of the approach of Veterans Day, which has fallen on our sabbath this year, the 100th anniversary of the end to the “war to end all wars” – as in vain hope still.  No, I thought of these words because I fell ill, and illness is a discouraging thing especially when one is not inclined to just sit back and watch life go by.  I had asked for prayer from a long-time friend from my years of providing pastoral care for the East Coast SEAL team.  We had worked together to care for families of deploying SEALs.  Then I got a call from one SEAL, then another, as word passed, each calling to check on me.  One I hadn’t heard from in almost 19 years; it didn’t matter and it was like no time had passed.  From each I heard not just words of encouragement, but wise counsel – sharing their observations of the challenge of transitioning from the intensity of wearing the nation’s cloth, to that of the more measured pace of civilian life.  There was empathy.  There was understanding.  There was insight.  From other directions, a former corpsman quietly ordered me a special pillow to ease my back pain, as another sailor reminded me in a text message: “you are stuck with me” when making sure I had what I needed.  Those who’ve been in harm’s way with another or handled the stateside messy, traumatic events together, often discover a deep trust in one another, a bond as tight or tighter, than family.

Yet, I have found such relationships of loyalty are hardly exclusive to those in uniform, not from what I’ve observed of people.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I think this is where the Book of Ruth offers such keen insight.  Among the most cherished words of the Psalmists and scattered throughout the Old Testament, is “hesed” – literally it means “loyal love.”  Even if that word wasn’t used in the earlier books of the Old Testament, such as Ruth, it certainly defines the relationship between Ruth and Naomi wherein loyalty is elevated to a virtue, for it speaks to kindness between people, their piety towards God, and God’s love towards His people.  It’s a love that just won’t let go.

FOR INSTANCE

Against this backdrop of self-evident “hesed” through the earlier chapters of the Book of Ruth, Naomi is bereft of both husband and her sons, cut off from a future in a society where widows had an exceptionally hard life.  Yet, she is so concerned for Ruth’s own circumstances that Naomi’s first instinct is to turn Ruth back toward her own people, the Moabites, and not let her travel back with her to Israel.  She wants good for her, but Ruth will not leave her side.

Having lost her husband, clearly a man with a challenging life as his name meant “sickly,” on the face of it Ruth’s prospects might have appeared better if she stayed with her own people.  Instead, amid this new life in Israel, quite aware that Moabites weren’t a people respected by the Israelites as those born of Lot’s incestuous relationship by one of his daughters and being viewed as worshippers of idols, Ruth would have seemed to be on the bottom rung of society.

However, like my friend reminding me I am “stuck with” him for life, Ruth would not be dissuaded.

And so, in today’s reading, having arrived among the kinfolk of Naomi as the barley harvest had begun, focused just upon the hope of survival, they found an unexpected hope and prosperity.  Having arrived upon the wheat harvest, now two months later it was of barley.  As a just man, Boaz followed the Levitical laws which meant leaving a portion of the crop upon the ground so that the poor and the widows might glean what remained.  Thus, it was to his fields Ruth turned.

As the story goes, folks soon take note of Ruth’s character, this remarkable loyal love she possesses for her mother-in-law Naomi.  As we’d say back when I was active duty, Ruth shows herself as all heart and no quit.  Her reputation builds.  Character indeed matters and even among strangers, some folk just stand out among the crowd, and Ruth is no exception.

There are interactions, Boaz having gone so far as to bless this Moabite woman in God’s name and be a word of encouragement to her.  But then the story moves into an interesting plot twist, for if Ruth is loyal to Naomi, so Naomi is utterly loyal to Ruth.  A plan develops in Naomi’s mind, thus Ruth arrived late in the day, clean and perfumed, in the final moments of separating the barley from the chaff that left seed upon the stone floor of the typically high tower built to catch the late afternoon and early evening winds typical of that area.  The evening meal had been consumed and Boaz rested, not knowing Ruth laid down close by him, per Naomi’s instructions.

Admittedly, I get the impression Boaz has held back from taking an initiative in the relationship.  Clearly he has taken notice of this unusual woman, one that preceding chapters note he has even given instruction that his harvesters be sloppy so even more grain is left for her to glean.  Maybe such hesitation is borne of his own grief, for something the Book of Ruth doesn’t mention but which is raised by a midrash of some rabbis some two millennium ago.  In this explanation, the crowd that met Naomi and Ruth upon their arrival from Moab was actually a funeral procession for the wife of Boaz who died earlier that day, their entrance giving the people a moment of joy amid their grief.  In this story, Boaz is identified as the judge Ibzan in the Book of Judges (the 12th chapter), the book which precedes Ruth.  In this story, we have a widower, who like the suffering Job, was berefit of his wife and children, which explains the absence in Ruth of the mention of a wife and children to Boaz, though otherwise a prosperous man.

If this is indeed the backdrop against this night, it would explain the energy behind Boaz’s awaking with surprise that a woman is beside him, demanding to know who it is, and the poignancy of  Ruth, in what one commenter notes as probably one of the least romantic marriage proposals in scripture: she directs Boaz to spread his cloak, literally his “wings,” over her.

Notice what Boaz says, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.”  For Boaz, clearly is neither, as he adds “And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.”  Her character is well-known, her loyalty to Naomi has set her apart, for had she not been so loyal, Ruth would have naturally sought out a younger man.  Against this, Boaz’s prior refrain from seeking her hand is shown as rooted in his own character, an inferred kindness in not wanting her to be obligated to a marriage she did not want for herself.

If her loyalty to Naomi led Ruth to leave her homeland behind, toil without fail for her welfare, and risk both herself and her reputation in order to create a future for Naomi – we can see it’s the very admiration of such a steadfast loyalty that results in something greater than security for two widows, an heir for Elimelech and son for Boaz.  It is something which brings a delight to the whole community, what would become the genesis of the eventual Davidic dynasty that will rule Judah for four hundred years.

It is no small wonder that such a value for loyal love would be a heritage that would echo down the generations.  Certainly it is echoed in the words of Solomon, the great-grandson of Ruth, in the opening words of the 3rd chapter of Proverbs, wherein it is written:

1My child, do not forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commandments;
for length of days and years of life
and abundant welfare they will give you.

Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favor and good repute
in the sight of God and of people.

Let’s be honest, sometimes such loyal love might be better expressed as stubborn love.  It just cannot be shaken off.  Doesn’t that reveal it to be a form of grace?

Now, imagine if you will a community in which this wasn’t remarkable, something that goes even beyond the eloquent words of Shakespeare in writing of such shared loyalty of King Henry’s “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

SO WHAT?

I have some observations of what this would look like among us and how it would shape our relationships.

I think about the kindness extended toward me as a pastor when, well, I ran into some health issues made worse by me trying to push past them – only to be cared for by ya’ll.  That isn’t a given for pastors, not at all, to be vulnerable and yet safe.

I think about last Sunday and those whose lives we lifted up in thankfulness on All Saints Day, and those who in a myriad of ways cared for them during their decline in health… advocating for them with medical providers, supporting them in prayers and presence and more.

I think about the people who come to eat in our fellowship hall, some familiar now and others new, and how people of this church dedicate untold hours of preparation, of service, of feeding and cleaning.

I think about so many things I hear of, stumble across, or just never know of, but which evidence such loyal love within this community of faith.

Isn’t that what we are called to be as disciples of Jesus?  Are not we called to amaze and transform the world – “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters)”… as we share the Lord and extend his invitation to a whole new family?

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Pastor’s Note:  In addition to the commentaries off my shelf, I found this an intriguing article from the Jewish Women’s Archive, “Ruth:  Midrash and Aggadah,” by Tamar Meir.  Accessed 09 Nov 2018 at https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/Ruth-midrash-and-aggadah

What Gets Noticed

pptF9B.pptm - AutoRecovered*Sermon preached on 30 Sep 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  I found this a challenging text, precisely because I am not a little upset with the damage being done to the witness of the Gospel by those convinced of their righteousness, but absent of the humility that questions self.   I have encountered too many who love the Lord, but not His church… or just won’t have anything to do with either because of toxic Christians.  But, in being faithful to THIS text, the focus is largely on self, although touching on those larger issues.  No sermon could handle it all.  As always, I seek to be faithful to the text and pull out the things for us to think about together.  Blessings, Vinson

Gospel of Mark 9:38-50 (New Revised Standard Version)

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.  “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.  If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.  “For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

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INTRODUCTION

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the disciples often come across as clueless or confused, sometimes they appear downright resistant to hearing the word Jesus brings.  They struggle to grow in vision.  Today’s lesson got me to thinking back perhaps 15 or 16 years ago, when the wife of one of the sergeants in my Marine battalion called to say she wanted to see me.  When she stopped by my office, she quickly got to the point: she wanted to divorce her husband.  She was beyond frustrated with him, and eventually it tumbled out that she had another appointment after the one with me.  It was with a lawyer.

She had come to me, just to mitigate her guilt over seeking a divorce.

She was fed up.

I asked her if she would be willing to try one thing, before heading onto the lawyer.  Would she be willing to sit down with her husband?  Right now?

“Fat lot of good this would do,” or something to that effect, she replied, “but OK.”  After all, she didn’t want to feel guilty for seeking a divorce.

He arrived, not knowing what he was walking into, so I had him take a seat and filled him in.  He went white and started to become defensive, until I silenced him with a simple request.

He and his wife would have to pull their chairs facing each other, so they were knee to knee and holding hands, able to look each other in the eye.  Then I would give his wife a book to hold onto and he would not be allowed to speak until she gave him the book.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

It’s not easy to hear the heart of another, even though it may be the vital step towards reconciliation and healing.  But in Mark, the disciples showed real confusion in this, in thinking the healing mission was really about them.  Whether they admitted it or not, it was about how great they could be – instead of focusing on those victimized by suffering in life and needing a cup of grace.   Like so often, their stumbles became to Jesus a means of teaching.

FOR INSTANCE

The exchange starts out very strangely with John speaking on behalf of the other disciples, saying “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  It’s almost as if they had said “We own you, Jesus, and those other folk – they will not displace us.”

I have to say about the Bible, the full humanity of those who seek God is not hidden, and it gives us a place to see ourselves in our own imperfections.  In this case, the disciples observed the competency of others doing great things in the name of Jesus, and I suspect the energy behind their complaint was connected to how many times they themselves had failed to be very effective.  Amid jealousy, it wasn’t about Jesus, but about themselves.

Quickly, Jesus turns the table on the disciples and their possessiveness.  It’s time for them to take a hard look at their own behavior and how they themselves might be getting in the way of the Gospel.  Implied is the question:  How they might be stumbling blocks, tripping up others?

None of us wants to think such would be true of us, do we?

However, in the searing imagery of which Jesus speaks, is the undercurrent of concern as to our words and deeds, our attitudes and our behavior.  In each of the verses from 42 to 47, Jesus uses a particular Greek word, “skandalon” from which the word scandal is derived, to speak of the obstacles placed in the path of others.  It is a scandal indeed, that followers of Christ would harm others seeking him – a potent reminder that it’s just so easy to harm those fragile in their faith to the point that they are lost.

I have to think that as brief and cut to the chase as the Gospel of Mark is, for this exchange to be remembered and included is because the Roman church was having its own growing pains.  Being a mix of Jewish converts from the area and Gentiles, brought its own tensions.  Let’s face it, the Jews would have brought with them at least a basic understanding of the Old Testament texts, whereas the Gentiles were having to learn everything.  It’s like those who become a follower of Christ as an adult, having missed out on Sunday School all those years, and feeling not a little embarrassed as to their limited Biblical literacy among those long churched.  Or when one runs up against questions one isn’t prepared to easily answer – perhaps from lack of study, perhaps because some things even theologians argue about.  Such are stumbling blocks, sometimes imposed upon self; sometimes imposed upon others.

This is why I asked those questions in an email to y’all.  Just to get you thinking… and to become self-aware of what stumbling blocks get placed in front of others, or one encounters – that ouch.

Against this, there is the word of the Lord: “For truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

Things get noticed.  All the time.

For instance, what we do at the Welcome Table gets noticed.  This past Tuesday evening an older man came up and gave me $20 to put in the plate.  Not for the meal, as he said he did not eat – but in gratitude for just experiencing a sense of community by sitting down and conversing with formerly complete strangers.  But if we are to take the words of Jesus seriously, it isn’t just for us to do good, but to keep an eye on those things which may hinder the witness of the Gospel in the community, nation, and world.

For instance, how, as people of faith, are we engaged as a voice of reason amid what is an increasingly uncivil society, being the “salt” of which Jesus spoke?

What say you?  [PAUSE]

When we look at the Reconciliation offering envelopes, perhaps we recollect that 51 years ago this ministry was launched as a way to help support efforts within the larger ministry of the church and in grants with congregations – to combat the systemic elements of racism which exist in our society.  A just means to help remove a powerful stumbling block.  Alongside it there are other needs for advocacy, such as better access to health care or other basic needs, as a witness to our love of people through Jesus Christ.

There is also the question I put to you as to what those “other Christians” do or say that just drives you up a wall.  One response I received is a complaint I have heard for years, “They say things as if they have a direct line to God and if you don’t behave exactly as the Bible says you’re condemned forever.”  No grace, and no inclusive table.

What things get under your skin?  [PAUSE]

How about we contemplate the tough issues of the objectivization of women that dehumanizes, whether we are talking sexism, misogyny, or sexual assault.  Who watched the Senate hearing on Thursday or watched the news about Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh’s testimonies?  In its wake, I know what has astonished me are those Christians, some of great renown, whose concerns are focused on the impact upon the judge’s reputation, with little or no regard to Dr. Ford and her suffering.  Do you think such a response protecting the male and diminishing the female, witnesses the love of Christ?  Does it invite or close conversations for survivors, heal or add to injury for other survivors, open or close the door for conversation within the church?

It’s easy to have a dose of righteous anger, but as the Apostle Paul notes, that isn’t a license to sin ourselves.  So what kind of vision would we hold up to so that we aren’t stumbling blocks, but pathways to the grace of God in Jesus Christ for others who suffer?  [PAUSE]

So I go back to where I left off earlier.  As the Marine’s wife began to talk, her energy began to pick up, quickly turning to anger as she vented all of her complaints.  At first, her husband looked back at her with anger and defiance, with the whole “How dare you” kind of look.  But, he did keep his mouth shut.

Able to see both of their faces, at some point I noticed an expression cross the wife’s face as she seemed to hesitate for but a moment.  It was a look of surprise, one taking in that he was still there, holding her hands, sitting quietly, and listening – even if he didn’t want to.

Another 10 minutes went by, and as her energy started to taper off, her voice softened, and she began to weep.  Words filled with anger gave way to words filled with sorrow, as the pain came out of her.  Tears started down the husband’s cheeks, as I noticed the defiance had left his eyes and empathy had taken its place.  Finally, finishing, she did something I didn’t expect, she thanked him before handing him the book so he could now talk.

He did not come back with his own tale of vindication, but with a couple sentences… words of humility… and deep sorrow.  “I didn’t realize I hurt you,” he began, as he acknowledged what she had said and apologized.  It was the beginning of a many conversations we would have, as the moment they began to move back toward love.

SO WHAT?

So I leave you with a question to ponder given the exchange that took place in Mark, and reflections upon those moments when we or others have been a source of hurt… stumbling blocks by another name.  In hearing the word of our Lord, what would we change in ourselves in making room for others?

Amen.

Holding Back

Presentation2
*Sermon preached on 23 Sep 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  Every place of ministry has left me with indelible memories of various souls, in this case Miss Sarah.  She was proof to never assume folks aren’t listening to sermons, even those sermons one doesn’t think are so great, and the work of the Spirit in them.  It is truly humbling.  That little congregation at Oxford, Kentucky, was amazing, and the best gift they gave to me as a student minister was their very clearly stated sense of purpose in their time – to help train ministers.  I learned so much from them and remain ever grateful for their love and faith.

Gospel of Mark 9:30-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;  for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.  Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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HO HUM

Back in Kentucky, during my student pastor days, every Sunday I preached at three congregations.  I had a 5-speed Volkswagen pickup truck that flew over those backcountry roads to get to community.

The first service was at 9, in an ancient congregation that dated to 1780.

Oxford was now in its third building, the first had been of logs, the second built of brick.  It had been torn down in the 1840s with its brick and mortar used to build a larger sanctuary yards away, facing the newer road through the village.

The congregation’s members had dispersed over the years, many to a nearby congregation, others elsewhere.  It had not helped to have a worship service at 9 a.m.  It was the only congregation I’ve ever known that sat in front.  Perhaps because that was where the heat was in winter, but I think it had a lot to do with their heart as well.  They wanted to learn.

Among them was Miss Sarah.

She was somewhere in her 80s.  A farmer’s widow, she had never learned to read and write.  It’s why most didn’t think this sweet lady was all that smart.  Then one Sunday, Miss Sarah did something I did not expect, she raised her hand in the middle of my sermon.  Miss Sarah had a question.

I stopped as she asked about something I had just said relating it to something I had said in a sermon three months earlier.  I was stunned…

Miss Sarah could not read and write, but she was interested in learning.  Unafraid to ask, there would be other times she would raise her hand to ask a question in the middle of one of my sermons.  I’d stop and answer, then go back into the sermon.  Some of my seminary classmates were horrified at the thought of interrupted sermons, but I absolutely loved Sarah’s mind and spirit.  In her, I saw a gentle and yet emboldened disciple of Jesus.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

However, the text stands as a witness that asking questions is not easy for us.  We hesitate.  Not wanting to offend.  Not wanting to be wrong.  Not wanting to look stupid.  Yet, discipleship happens amid questions, even if and when the answers are illusive, the search itself opens one to the movement of the Spirit.

FOR INSTANCE

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, it’s clear that the disciples struggle to ask questions.  Especially the tough questions.  Jesus said that he would be betrayed, he would be killed, and three days after having been killed he would rise from the dead, yet  – it’s said of the disciples : “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

They don’t understand this specific teaching, which is the very heart of the Incarnation.  One can almost hear the wheels turn in their minds, with the question: how is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die, and why should this even happen?

Yet, they are silent.

It seems that the disciples throughout the Gospel of Mark are quite often confused…. they don’t “understand what he was saying.”  I get that.  I too sometimes find myself confused at times when I read certain scriptures, or puzzle over certain events or relationships.  You know, the ones we or others might throw upon a fast, trite, well-meaning and intended-to-be-helpful phrase – because otherwise, what would we say when things just don’t make sense?

If their silence and perhaps ours at times, points to a lack of understanding, sometimes the bigger problem is the unwillingness to ask the tough questions of Jesus.

So why don’t the disciples ask?

Is it merely that because they are a bunch of guys, so they aren’t going to stop and ask for directions?  Just like they won’t read the assembly instructions or the manual?!

It is because they don’t want to appear to be as confused as they are, unable to grasp the teachings of Jesus, in spite of all of his teaching?  After all, who wants to look confused or clueless?

Is it because the words of Jesus are just so profound, so deep, that the disciples simply just fear asking more of him?

Let’s face it, sometimes we ourselves do hold back our toughest questions.  We fear offending God.  We fear looking stupid.  We fear for a thousand other reasons.  So, the questions remain in our hearts and minds.  You know those questions.

Some are those big picture philosophical ones that may or may not touch upon some part of our own life experience, like “why do good people suffer, or why do people hurt each other, or why does evil sometimes appear to win?

Some are the more personal questions such as why was my back injured?  Or, so and so assaulted?  Or, a family member cutting another off for reasons that make no sense, if the reasons are even known at all?  The list is endless.

From the time we learn to speak, let’s face it, we have questions.  It’s how we learn in school.  It’s also how we learn in our faith.  And yet, the disciples hold back from asking about why God’s own son, the Messiah as Peter identified Jesus in the prior chapter of Mark, would be betrayed and killed.  Why would God set up such a world?  Why would this happen to their friend and teacher?

Yet, if they are silent in the face of such hard questions, what would we ask?  If you were Miss Sarah, like I started out talking about, and felt completely free to raise your hand, right now –

What kind of questions do you think the disciples might have been thinking and not asked in today’s text from Mark 9:30-37?  [PAUSE]

What questions might you be afraid to ask God?  [PAUSE]

What questions might you be afraid to ask at church, or wish you could ask?  [PAUSE]

SO WHAT?

A part of the “good news” of Jesus Christ, is that even when we don’t understand, when we don’t know, when we stay silent instead of asking what’s on our mind and in our heart – we are embraced every bit as much as the child Jesus picks up and holds.  For a child is after all, the ultimate symbol of not knowing, not understanding, immature and undeveloped – and yet embraced, by the One whose” perfect love casts out all fear.” [1 John 4:18]

Amen.

Owed Nothing, Given Everything

mark 7*Sermon preached on 09 Sep 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  I do think that much of what we are wrestling with in our society, so often  described along perhaps uncomfortable political lines, is where this text calls us to to perceive who and what the Table of the Lord really encompasses.  In so many ways, this nameless woman is like so many whose voices in our society have not been heard.  I encourage you to ponder it in the context of now, for the Word is ever relevant and prophetic.  Like any sermon, I raise questions with the hope you will seek answers.

Gospel of Mark 7:24-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,  but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.   He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”   But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.  Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.  They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.  Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.  Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.  They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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INTRODUCTION

At the start of my first tour in the Navy, our little family lived out in Shonan Takatori, a community sandwiched between the cities of Yokosuka and Yokohama, Japan, about 10-15 minutes from our naval base at Yokosuka.

It took a bit of getting used to, all the cultural differences.  It was safe enough to leave the keys in the car, with a license plate starting with the English letter of Y identifying us as Ginjing… foreigners.  It was safe enough to leave the house unlocked and have no worries.  Well, except for one thing…

Julie stepped out of the bathroom one morning only to be greeted by a gentleman standing inside our house.  You see, just inside the door is the genkan, the small entry area in Japanese homes that’s a step lower than the floor of the home.  Tiled, it’s where the shoes come off, a barrier against dirt so as to not damage the tatami mats that cover the house floor.

That was the day we discovered that that little area is considered part of the sidewalk, open to anyone – delivery people, neighbors, complete strangers, unless one locks the door.

Yeah, Julie really liked that!  Not.

This memory struck me as I read the words from the Gospel, of what it’s like for when someone intrudes themselves into our space, into the sanctity our home.

We don’t generally embrace intrusions.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Yet in the text this morning from Mark – it’s an intrusion that’s in play, one that’s both social and theological, and it comes on the heels of the previous chapter when Jesus made clear with regards purity before God – it’s the content of a person’s character which is of interest to God.  So the intrusion Jesus experienced will have something to say to us about the authentic boundaries of heaven – not merely the boundaries we might construct.

FOR INSTANCE

It’s not clear, given Mark’s typically sparse words, why Jesus was in what we now would call southern Lebanon… if it was just a break from the crowds or a transitional point that nodded to the expansion to whom Jesus Christ brings good news.

We do know Jesus was in a home, across the border from the Judean north country, apparently attempting to keep a low profile, all in vain.  His name and his healing works in that pre-channel news and social media era, had still apparently spread like the proverbial wildfire, even into non-Jewish areas.

We do know that Mark doesn’t say a word about the homeowner him or herself, only that Jesus is there, probably at table with his disciples, eating and chatting.  Then, this Syrophoenician woman comes right on in.  She didn’t stop at the entrance.  She is bold in action and word.

We do know that in the path of Christ that was unfolding – a sequence of events that would eventually culminate in the crucifixion, resurrection, and the sending forth of the disciples into all the nations – Jesus dealing with the dividing line of nations or of tribes that defined people in the sight of God, wasn’t yet on the agenda.  It didn’t matter.

We do know that in the reading of the Gospels, Jesus’s encounters with women were consistently defined by those who would not be pushed away… or shushed by others… but who were embraced by his compassion and honored for their faith.  It had never mattered as to their social standing as women, but now it was moving outside the Chosen People.

We do know that even though she was a Syrophoenician, due to Tyre’s proximity to Judea, a major port, she would have had exposure to Jewish customs.  It’s also fair to say, she would know she had no given authority to approach Jesus.  A Phoenician, a Gentile, a pagan, a woman, and with a daughter having an unclean spirit – let’s face it, she would likely have known that she had none of the religious, moral, and cultural credentials expected of those approaching a devout Jewish male, much less a rabbi and one of such renown.

We do know that she was a nobody in a sense.  Nothing is said about her social standing, other than she was a single mother.  We don’t even know her name, only that she entered a home without an invite, fell down and began to beg Jesus to heal her daughter.  She doesn’t stop with a single plea, as the present tense of the verb “Beg” conveys an ongoing action.  She has no quit in her.

We do know that she is a mother on a mission.  Saying “No” won’t cause her to walk away.  It’s as if she is the embodiment of a parable Jesus used to speak of the “need to pray always and not to lose heart,” for in Luke 18 he told the tale of how

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’  For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’  And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

It sure seems a bit familiar as we wrestle with today’s text from Mark, doesn’t it?  Maybe that’s why Jesus’ response can seem so stunning.  These days Twitter would have been aflame upon hearing such words, when he says:  Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

As one author notes, “On the surface, this appears to be an insult.  We are a canine-loving society, but in New Testament times most dogs were scavengers – wild, dirty, uncouth in every way.  Their society was not canine-loving, and to call someone a dog was a terrible insult.  In Jesus’ day the Jews often called the Gentiles dogs because they were ‘unclean.’  Is what Jesus says to her just an insult, then?  No, it’s a parable…  One key to understanding it is the very unusual word Jesus uses for ‘dogs’ here.  He uses a diminutive form, a word that really means “puppies.”  Remember, the woman is a mother.  Jesus is saying to her, ‘You know how families eat: First the children eat at the table, and afterward their pets eat too.  It is not right to violate that order.  The puppies must not eat food from the table before the children do.’”

As Keller continues, “If we go to Matthew’s account of this incident, he gives us a slightly longer version of Jesus’s answer in which Jesus explains his meaning:  ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’  Jesus concentrated his ministry on Israel, for all sorts of reasons.  He was sent to show Israel that he was the fulfillment of all Scripture’s promises, the fulfillment of all the prophets, priests, and kings, the fulfillment of the temple.  But after he was resurrected, he immediately said to the disciples, ‘Go to all the nations.’  His words, then, are not the insult they appear to be.  What he’s saying to the Syrophoenician woman is, ‘Please understand, there’s an order here.  I’m going to Israel first, then the Gentiles (the other nations) later.’”

She’s a mom and when a child’s involved, I don’t know a mother who is all that interested in the big theological picture of God’s plan for the world – when she’s worried about a sick child.

She’s a mom, and her child IS her world.

Mark adds how the mother is saying to Jesus, Yes, Lord, but the puppies eat from that table too, and I’m here for mine.”

She’s a mom who understands that she isn’t in the sequence of priorities, by birth or by faith.  I think the sense of what she is saying is “I may not have a place at the table – but there’s more than enough on that table for everyone in the world, and I need mine now.”  She’s not saying, “Lord, give me what I deserve on the basis of my goodness,” instead she is saying, “Give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of your goodness, and I need it now.”

Let me repeat that, “Give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of YOUR goodness.”  That sounds a whole lot like grace, doesn’t it?

She’s a mom who recognizes she isn’t entitled to a place at the table by accident of birth as much as anything else.  She isn’t standing on rights, or dignity, or goodness.  She’s standing on her “rightless assertiveness,” as Keller puts it, even as she asserts the need she brings to Jesus.

She’s a mom and much more, amid a Jacob-like verbal wrestling with our Lord, holding her ground with someone who is far more than a rabbi alone.  I like how one commentator elegantly puts it:

“Her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit or even humility.  It appears she recognizes — somehow — a certain abundance about the things Jesus is up to. ‘Go ahead, children, eat all you want.  But what if your table can’t contain all the food Jesus brings?  The excess must therefore start spilling to the floor — even now.”’ [Skinner]

When I flipped the page of an old commentary of my Dad’s and opened it to the version of this miracle/parable story as in Matthew, a slip of paper tumbled out.  A narrow slip, which is what my Dad wrote his sermon notes on, in his nearly illegible handwriting Dad wrote:  “I never cease to be amazed by Jesus’ wonderful gift of talking with the people he encountered in various places.”

It’s easy to miss that in this exchange, as we contemplate “rights” from the perspective of our society which has so elevated personal rights at the expense of social responsiveness and responsibility.  Yet, Jesus did not dismiss her.  He stayed in the conversation, and in this exchange the teachable moment becomes ours as well.  Dad was onto something: Jesus talked WITH her, not at her.

In an age when too many are still held back, treated as socially inferior, religiously marginalized, and politically unequal, it’s here in the Gospel of Mark that a nameless woman who is all of those things becomes the FIRST to understand a parable of Jesus.  It’s the nameless who grasps the deeper understanding.  Jesus leaves none of us in unfilled hope, still a beggar, but seats us at the table and claims us too as God’s beloved children… children from every tribe and language and nation.  As it’s been noted, “Even crumbs from the table would be enough for our healing and salvation.  But Jesus has given more than enough.  He sets an abundant, life-giving feast for all.”  [Johnson]

This is the table he asks us to set, as disciples.

Having not been there in that earlier exchange in Judea, Mark seems to lift up the anonymous woman as inexplicably understanding the implications of what Jesus announced in Mark 7:14-23… that everyone really is in the same boat as to what makes one defiled.  Therefore, why should any have to wait to participate in the blessings made possible through the advent of the Christ?

SO WHAT?

So it’s not about merit.  It’s not about standing.  It IS that she listens to Jesus as much as he listens to her.

Amid that listening, as it’s been observed, “It is only until you realize that you have no leverage in your position before God that you will finally begin to hear and understand His voice and call on your life – just like the Gentile woman who had nothing to offer Jesus–to lean on His grace alone.”

So if we are left with answers, we are also left with questions to wrestle with, as followers of Jesus hearing the words of Mark today…

How would we hear this encounter today between Jesus and an unnamed person who is all the things that challenge an age which has seen misogyny, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia move center stage in our own land?

How might we hear it when, let’s face it, most of us here come from a place of privilege simply by accident of the color of our skin, in a time when so many of the same seem overcome with fear and resentment – falsely believing there isn’t enough on the table for all to be fed with the abundance of our nation?

How might we hear it when others’ frustrations, with the too-long deferred “better days” in our society, bubble up and they don’t simply say, but instead proclaim, that it isn’t enough to be satisfied with crumbs… and demand an equal seat at the table?

How might we hear such questions as those used to having a place at the table – when we, as people of faith, are called to be the salt that flavors the world – discover the Kingdom’s truth: none of us has any more right or privilege.  We all come as beggars to the table and it’s solely by the grace of God that we are fed – and that the table is far more spacious and far more abundant that we can possibly image?

How, might we place ourselves in this encounter, one that precedes the feeding of 4,000 by Jesus?

How might the miracle take place now?  And here’s a hint: It is not simply about the feast nor limited to the confines of the table!

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes: Timothy Keller, Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God.  Penguin Books, 2013.  Elizabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Mark 7:24-37.” 09 Sep 2018, accessed on 03 Sep 2018 at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3761  Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 7:24-37.”  09 Sep 2012, accessed on 03 Sep 2018 at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1382

As for Me

joshua-24-15-bible-verse-FacebookCovers*Sermon preached on 26 Aug 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  Having a singular perspective, a way of “resetting” oneself amid a rather challenging world, I have long found “As for me and my house” to be a critical perspective, a phrase that centers my ethics in a world where so much is “off the rails.”  So much we cannot control, but we do have a say over us… if we are to be what the Old Testament calls “the faithful remnant” or the New Testament refers to as “the leaven in the lump.”  If we are to indeed be a people of hope, this is a grounding point as to who WE choose to be, not who others would be, or society would be.  The sermon is offered for your reflection and inner dialogue.  -Vinson

Joshua 24:1, 14-18 (New Revised Standard Version)

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God.
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LordNow if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

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INTRODUCTION

In the past few weeks (Well, except for last Sunday when I was one of y’all sitting in the pew listening to a dear friend preach in my place), we’ve talked about being intentional in having select friends be not just wise counsel, but also empowered to speak truth when we most need to hear it.  We’ve also talked about having certain touchstones in our lives, to give us our bearings.  Now we come to this passage from the Book of Joshua, to hear its wisdom across the centuries to us as followers of Jesus.

At 110 years of age, Joshua is ready to rest from his labors, and so he calls the tribes to meet at Shechem for a final word from him.

It is here that Joshua recounts the generations who had gone before them, each having discovered the calling of the Lord and experienced His care for His people.

He mentions Abraham who was called forth, leaving his father and the many gods of Babylon behind him – for a promise from God, one that would make a barren couple the parents of an entire nation in a land bequeathed to them by God.  It was at this place that God confirmed his covenant with Abraham and the land of Israel.

He mentions Jacob, his grandson, who had joined his son Joseph in Egypt ensuring the family’s survival amid an extended famine.

He mentions Moses, who arose after a few centuries has passed and Israel had developed into 12 tribes, who were feared for their numbers and found themselves enslaved.  Freed by God’s hand and led to the border of their new life.

Having seen that generation pass from the Earth, Joshua had become their warrior/leader, and now, the land that would be known as Israel lay in their hands — with each of the twelve tribes given their portion.  It’s a pivotal moment for the Israelites.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Suddenly, so much has been delivered to them: cities they did not build, vineyards and olive orchards they did not plant.  Their land, spoken of as flowing with milk and honey, is indeed a place of promise.

Yet… this land of extravagant abundance and the comfort of plenty had been spoken of by Moses as both seductive and dangerous.  There is the potential for Israel to be seduced into forgetting its calling and its character, which points to the unsteady character of the people themselves.

There are alternative gods in this good land.

The people must choose wisely.

FOR INSTANCE

Joshua takes the first step.

In that remarkable turn of words he says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  He throws down the challenge.  He and his household have chosen covenantal life with the God who gives both the land and the commandments, even as he recognizes there are other options, other gods, other ways of living that confront the Israelites.

It is about identity at the core, an identity that they must look at full in the face, even as we must.

It is such an identity that will determine passions and loyalties – the kind that define a faith community… and what kind of society they will strive for that best reflects the life-giving community God intends for humanity.

The people respond, ready to echo Joshua’s choice.  They can rattle off the litany as well as Joshua, of how God has blessed the people over the centuries – protecting, guiding, nurturing them.  Some of them might even be more eloquent with the verbiage.

But here’s the crux of the matter.  It isn’t enough to be able to rattle off the history, and be grateful.  It isn’t enough to recite from memory an affirmation of faith or something like the Lord’s Prayer.  It isn’t enough to show up at the gathering.  In a land in which there are alternative gods, it’s not a superficial commitment that God seeks.  It’s not a relationship of convenience; it’s an “all in” – from God, from us.  That’s how healthy relationships prosper – for the heart matters.

But, if we read between the lines, it seems that Joshua’s suspicious they want to have it both ways, to possess both “God and mammon” as Jesus would later put it in the 6th chapter of Matthew – enjoying the fulfillment of God’s promises while simultaneously accepting the self-serving gifts of the Canaanite gods.

It doesn’t work that way,

Joshua rejects their first pledge of loyalty, but they come back at him with resolve, saying to the effect: “No, we really mean it!”

By the time the negotiating is over, they will have promised to serve God two more times, with the 3-fold affirmation to serve God followed by an official covenant-making ceremony, with the writing down of the words and setting up a witness stone – “for he is our God,” they have said, defining the relationship as both personal and communal.

Now, it’s easy to ask what does this have to do with us?

The pantheon of gods that the Canaanites and others served are long gone.  Outside of the Bible and the realm of archeology, their names are forgotten by all.

True.  Yet the challenge of their nature remains just as seductive now as then, to those who would follow after our Lord God.  Those gods, whether of the harvest, or lust, or whatever else, were about oneself – gods of transactional relationships, of quid pro quo: if I do this, then I expect you to do that.

Right now, right here in our society — one does not have to look far to see that kind of thought process and behavior.  It permeates our politics of today.  It permeates our airwaves and our internet.  It shows up at work, at home, and out and about.  It is oh so tempting, and if those ancient gods are no longer spoken of – a case can be made that people are still confronted with choosing between that way of thinking and behaving – and the way of God.

Walter Bruggeman, a one-time professor of mine, noted that — with God, it “is ‘all or nothing,’ with no casual allowance for accommodation.  What is at issue is a jealous God who is committed to neighborly justice and the organization of the economy for the sake of the weak and vulnerable…. the other gods, the totems of agricultural self-sufficiency, do not require such neighborly passion… a decision for the ‘other gods’ leads inevitably to socio-economic exploitation, the accumulation of wealth at the expense of neighbors.  Such a ‘religion’ without commitment to social justice will eventuate in communities of economic failure…”

The man is brilliant, but let me unpack that in the terms we might recognize.

We, live in a time when are witnessing a rapidly growing economic disparity in our society between rich and poor – with the poorer becoming even more so and wealth concentrating at nearly unfathomable rates among the richest.

We live in an era when a long-stagnant minimum wage — inadequate by any standard — falls further behind – and too few care.

We live in a time of young people saddled with college debt at unreasonable interest rates – degrees not necessarily paying off anymore as they once did.

We live in a day when a nation made up of the descendants of immigrants daily witnesses the disparagement of others who would seek refuge here and — too many choose to JOIN IN!

We live in a time when we see TV evangelists insisting that God has told them to buy a $40 million plane so they don’t have to sit with others in “coach,” or hawking “floating apocalypse survival buckets.”

We live in a time when entire families live on the street or in their cars, veterans with health issues cannot find housing, and retirees watch every safety net they thought they’d built for their final years ripped out from underneath them for the claimed purposes of austerity secondary to the top tax rates being reduced to the lowest levels in decades.

So yes, the perspective seen in the worship of the false gods of Canaan is still very much present and ultimately destructive – the perspective of selfishness has been around since the sentiment of Cain when he responded to God saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Well, as a matter of fact… yes, we most certainly ARE our brother’s keeper — our sister’s keeper too!

The covenant made at Shechem, — and MORE importantly, the covenant made in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ — comes with the understanding that we don’t get to privatize our sense of justice to merely what benefits us, but — as a community — ARE REQUIRED to consider what benefits others.

Like the retelling of history at Shechem, we may recollect of church history that every 500 hundred years, plus or minus a century, there is a major transition.  Or, as my sister puts it, the church has a great garage sale, ridding itself of what is no longer of use, making space for the new – as it reexamines itself as disciples of Jesus.

The followers of Jesus that became known as the “church,” spread the message of Jesus across the Roman Empire, while the Jesus movement remained oppressed for almost as long as the Israelites were by the Egyptians.  The second epoch saw a series of church councils codifying the New Testament along with core beliefs of the church, while the third witnessed the division of the church into two large parts, the Catholics and smaller bodies in the West, and the Orthodox in the East.  The fourth epoch was the Protestant Reformation, which coincided with the creation of the printing press distributing the Bible to the larger population, gone the days of the few Bibles being chained to the pulpit, with Bible teaching taking front and center stage.

But now we are at the cusp of the fifth epoch, one whose changes will not likely be clear for some time.   We know there is an increase of those identifying as having no faith or some faith.  It isn’t merely because of the rise of secularism, but because folks want to see Jesus – in his followers, in authentic, caring, ethical, God-centered lives that are much more interested in the DOING – not simply the retelling — of the Gospel.

In a sense, we stand at our own form of Shechem, like the folks back then, preparing to enter “a new land” – a new landscape different from what we’ve known.  It is an anxious time, both marvelous for some changes we see and frightening for others.  We live in a society far more diverse than we acknowledged before, with more being added to the mix.

SO WHAT?

Knowing the promise fulfilled in Jesus, knowing the journey of God’s people and our own story – this ancient text from Joshua invites decision and forces us to wrestle with it.

It is a decision not just about our own life with God — for it is inseparable from our life in relationship to one another – challenging us to more closely examine Jesus and his words and their authentic application.

If this is true, how would we then hear and how would we live the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:37-39, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Amen.

Touchstone for Life: On Having Counsel

12aug2018 cover*Sermon preached on 12 Aug 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  I have been blessed in life to have wise counsel along the way.  Turning that into an intentional spiritual practice  to ensure  one’s own spiritual health through accountability relationships is something we don’t do well in addressing as church.  Like many things, sermons don’t wrap things up… but are intended to just get one to thinking.  It really isn’t the material things that bless us, it is having key voices in our lives.  – Vinson

1 Kings 19:1-15 (New Revised Standard Version)

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”  Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.  But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”  He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lordcame a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.  At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.  Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

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INTRODUCTION

Every summer growing up, it was off to the races when it came to my father taking a much-needed break, as a pastor.

Having left his hometown of Coral Gables, Florida, from the time he graduated from seminary in 1965 until his death in 1981, Dad took all of his vacation time in one lump.  We’d sprint across the country to see our extended family…. the first stop being in the southern tip of Florida.

The drive, mostly in pre-interstate days, meant camping our way across in various national parks, and driving way past dark in order to have some time in the daylight at the various stops.  It also mean Dad driving somewhere in the 80 to 90 mph range in the western states before there were speed limits.

When we lived out in Oregon, we’d make the more than 3,500-mile trip in four and a half days, including all the stops… no mean feat with four kids!

When we lived in other states, the drive might be as short as 1,100 miles, in whatever station wagon we had not yet worn out.  However, once we made it to Coral Gables, after quickly dropping off the camper at my Mom’s parents’ home, we would always head over to see Luther Cole.  Each and every trip, though, as we arrived on Luther’s doorstep, I watched my normally very reserved father become an altogether different man – for Dad would absolutely light up in Luther’s presence.  The pastor of my folks’ home church, I assumed he was more – that Luther was also a relative.

I finally asked my Mom when I was 10 or 11.  It turned out, Luther was of no relation at all!  Except of the heart.

As much as the camping and visiting my grandparents in South Florida and the mountains of North Carolina made for a fun summer for us kids, it was seeing Luther that just seemed to ground and refresh Dad.  Reconnecting to a church which he had gone off on his own to attend at the ripe age of six, and having known only two pastors during a 30-year span, Luther had made the most impact on my father.  Not until he reached Luther Cole did my Dad truly relax and begin to enjoy and revel in his vacation.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Last week we talked about the need to keep people in our lives to help us stay accountable.  This week the lectionary pulls us off into another aspect of our spiritual wellness as we each have within us the need to somehow reconnect with the ground of our faith as disciples in this ministry of all believers, to which each are called – according to our gifts.

FOR INSTANCE

In looking at what has transpired, it’s clear Elijah is exhausted.  While successful in defeating the priests of the false god Baal at Mt. Carmel, he has made a powerful enemy in King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.

The spiritual warfare in which he has been engaged has taken a toll, so much so he is clearly depressed and appears to have suicidal ideations.  Here, the angels of the Lord pull him aside to ensure he has food and drink, commanding him to partake.

When folks are down, let’s face it, eating a decent meal and ensuring proper hydration, tend to fall by the wayside, as does quality sleep.  It’s no small wonder there is the old military adage about “3 hots and a cot” as a steps towards resetting oneself.  Invariably, I have nearly every time found that these are absent in those who rapidly slipping down into such depths of depression.

So, the angels lift up that need, even waking Elijah after he has had a decent sleep, to eat and drink yet again.  The first meal was to replenish him, the second meal was to strengthen him for the long walk ahead.

It all makes sense.

Elijah is now sent on a long trip.  Not by choice, but for spiritual need.  Not a vacation, but every bit a reset to get his bearings for life ahead.

And what a long walk it is; 95 miles as the crow flies, to Mt. Horeb… otherwise known as Mt. Sinai.

With the court searching for him to end his life, and few straight paths in the terrain – I can imagine that it ended up being perhaps twice the distance, maybe more, as is compelled to travel from the extreme northern reaches to the extreme southern reaches of the former kingdom David had forged out of the 12 tribes, now broken into northern and southern kingdoms.  But still, it seems like a pretty slow pace for 40 days journey.  One has to wonder if Elijah sat down a lot, got distracted, or just avoided roads altogether.

Mt. Horeb is the touchstone for Israel at the time, at this time in a much deeper way than the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

It had been ever since Moses first turned aside to see a bush that burned but was not consumed, only to hear the voice of God commanding him to take off the shoes from his feet – as he was standing on holy ground.

It had been the place that had been returned to by Moses, with the newly freed Israelites, and thus for Elijah…

…it was a place of remembering the Covenant made between God and the Israelites rescued from their Egyptian slavery.

…it was a place that also knew brokenness, literally and figuratively, in the destruction of the first tablets of the 10 Commandments upon Moses seeing the Israelites reverting to pagan practices when he had come down from his long encounter with God.

…and it was a place where, in Exodus 33:21, God puts Moses into a deep cleft in the rock, something of a cave, covering him as He passes by so he does not look upon the face of God even as he experiences the power of His glory.

As is typical, some nuances get lost in the translation from Hebrew to English, so let me lift up a couple of things that I’ve noticed.  In looking deeply in to the Hebrew of the original text, the cave to which Elijah is sent is THE cave, not merely “a” cave.  I think this is no accident of words, but points to this connection to Moses’ encounter.

But THE cave is not the place where he, nor we – live.  It is the touchstone, the place that grounds – but not the place where life and ministry are lived out.  No surprise then, that Elijah isn’t given a divine word to share, but instead a question for himself.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks.  [vs. 9]

The question is repeated, as is Elijah’s answer.

Despite the emphasis on Elijah’s extreme zeal for the Lord, Israel has abandoned God’s covenant, destroyed God’s altars, and killed God’s prophets.

Elijah claims to be the only one left and quickly add he is now public enemy number one.  It is somewhat a pitiful word on his part:  “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” [vs. 10 & 14]

The first question leads to Elijah moving to the opening of the cave, and the second leads to the divine command that Elijah should go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, because the Lord was about to pass by.  A dramatic show follows; everything but fireworks.  The kind of stuff that would have given the fickle people of Israel a real excitement.

We all like to be impressed, but if one thinks deeply about this… it is such things move the focus to us and away from God, which is why God cannot be discerned in any of these events.  Such a “show” isn’t how life will work, if one is to be spiritually healthy.

Then, there is what is said to be the “sound of sheer silence” [vs. 12] as the New Revised Standard Version translates it.

This is the moment when all the world’s confusing noise, stops…

Think of what it’s like when there’s nothing competing for our attention… Distractions disappear… There is nothing to filter out, and in that quiet we listen more intently without even having to think about it.

It reminds me of what Julie once told me of how when, as a substitute teacher, she had lost her voice one day.  The class which had been hard to control, suddenly shifted.  Her voice was so soft, they stopped their chatter, so they wouldn’t miss what she was saying.

Quiet.  Peace.  Amid that, the thinnest of sounds, the One whose voice we most need to hear – stands out.

Elijah’s encounter echoes that of Moses centuries before, except it’s not the hand of God that covers his sight, it’s his mantle.  It echoes that earlier encounter as the sound in the quiet reminds one of when God first spoke to Moses identifying himself by saying “I am” – a word that we may read as Yahweh.  In the Hebrew its pronunciation is, as my Old Testament professor noted – like the sound of a breath – the very breath that God placed in humanity at the moment of our creation.

The ancient hearers of I Kings would have picked up on these things, and that Elijah’s prayer doesn’t exactly get answered the way he perhaps hoped.  He has work to do, but Elijah will not be the last prophet, but the trainer for others – as he would call forth Elisha and at least 50 others, to become his students, and to whom he will one day turn over his work.

The call is bigger than Elijah, after all it’s God’s work.  It is no different for us, regardless of our role within the work of the Kingdom of God, we know in Christ our Lord.

SO WHAT?

Perhaps that is the liberating word for us, the touchstone, we forget is already present within us – perhaps sometimes, until life pushes us to a moment of such clarity.

It’s not found in a cave, nor is it a great wind passing by the entrance to our lives.

It’s not found at a mountain, nor an earthquake shaking the ground we stand upon.

It’s not found even in a church building, nor a great fire burning away the superfluous stuff of life.

No, it is in the sheer silence, the kind that is found in a trusting RELATIONSHIP, the one we know in Jesus Christ.  Hopefully, the kind that other lives and places have pointed us toward.  The kind that has drawn me to words written two years ago by another minister, John Pavlovitz.

Says he in words that have become only more true….

… these are hard times, but they don’t require an even harder people.  In days like these we need a faith that makes us softer.

This softness,” he says, “is not the opposite of conviction or the absence of principle.  It is the quiet confidence that doesn’t require anyone else to mirror them.  This softness is the sacred, supple core of the peacemakers, the forgivers, the healers.  It is the holy place that has always been where love does what love only love can do.

A faith that softens us will always make us more like Jesus.  His was a soft soul.

You can tell this because the afflicted sought him out. The broken reached out their hands to him.  The wounded never recoiled from his embrace.  People knew that their pain was safe in his presence.

From the hard places and the hard people, he was a refuge.  His softness was sanctuary to which they ran….  the Church as a living, breathing, feeling body, will need to hold on to its flesh so that it can be (such a) gentle, loving response to all the hardness around it.”

It is to

…hold onto to the pliable heart of Jesus in the middle of very difficult days… to not become stone in hard times… (to pray) for a faith that will make me softer.

Amen.

“Permission-Giving”

permision*Sermon preached on 05 Aug 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  I have truly blessed by the wise counsel of friends and come to understand just how vital intentional counsel is within the Christian walk.  It is a conversation needed.

2 Samuel 11:26-12:15 (New Revised Standard Version)

When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him.  When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.  But the thing that David had done displeased the Lordand the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.   The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.   Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”  Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”  Nathan said to David, “You are the man!  Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.   Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?  You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.   Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.  Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun.  For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”  David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.  Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”  Then Nathan went to his house.

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INTRODUCTION

The years have gone by quickly.  Hard to believe it has been 17 years since I became friends with Kenny and 3 years since I buried him.

A fellow Navy chaplain, I had been his sponsor into his first active duty assignment, when he became a battalion chaplain within the same Marine regiment as myself.

2000-2001 were two tough years.

I had deployed for 8 months, during which I learned I had failed to select for Lieutenant Commander, and then learned this had been the handiwork of a particular chaplain under whom I once served.  I would later promote and then again, but at that time… the sting was fresh upon me.  Then, Julie’s dad developed terminal cancer and we lost him.

There were just lots of stresses, even though we lived in beautiful Hawaii.  But, I had become close friends with Kenny, so there was that.

We didn’t agree on politics.  We didn’t agree on some religious issues, even though both Christians.  But, Kenny and I trusted each other, and trust… it is the coin of the realm in so many ways.

Amid that trust, one of the things Kenny challenged me, in his soft-spoken, kind way, was the need for personal accountability.  It had not really been a part of the discussion at my seminary, but was for him and I learned something new in my faith walk.

So it was that Kenny, another chaplain, and even one of my former corpsmen, became those whom I empowered to be truth-tellers to me.  I still chuckle at the latter, who asked “Why me, Godsquad?”  He always called me that.  I chuckled and noticed that he was a recovering alcoholic of 16 years, and that if anyone knew what self-deception is, it would be an recovering alcoholic!

I wanted them to walk with me, to speak truth if and when I needed it most, for my sake as much as the ministry to which I was called.

I would add to this learning, which would become essential to my welfare in the years ahead, and remains so today.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

It is this element of spiritual accountability that lies at the very center of this poignant passage from II Samuel, recalling a not so great moment in the life of King David.  A moment in time that speaks to a needed element of all who would seek to follow after God, keeping His commandments – and living justly in relationship with others.

FOR INSTANCE

It is easy to overlook how in God’s Word, the whole person is reflected in the narratives, giving us a place to see our reflection, to be students, and see the redemptive hand of God moving through flawed human beings.  So it is now with David.

In the preceding chapter, it is all too evident that the once humble David has gone rogue, become arrogant, lost his spiritual bearings.

He doesn’t yet realize it, but God knows, as always.  There is no secret sin before God.

He had put his most skilled general in the front lines, quietly having given orders for the troops to pull back and let their enemy kill him – as if that would not make David culpable for murder.

David does this, because even though he had multiple wives, nothing was enough for him now, as he bedded the wife of Uriah, whom he had seen bathing from the high vantage of his rooftop, she had become pregnant, his efforts to pin that on Uriah had failed, and now he moved to have him killed and quickly take her for a wife – all to conceal his sins of adultery and coveting.

One is not prepared for this, “thing that was evil in the eyes of Yahweh.”  Not from David of all people.

David has mistaken his divine appointment as freedom from accountability.

He thought it would go unnoticed.

At this point, Nathan enters, with a story to tell David, one that catches David’s sense of justice… A story of a poor man with but one beloved female lamb.  A story which uses loaded words like “he took” and “lie” – that carry an undertone of rape, while speaking of selfishness, destruction, and greed.

David is rightly enraged, as David pronounces sentence upon the unknown rich man – only to hear four words of blunt rebuke from Nathan, no longer couched in story:  “You are the man!”

Nowhere to hide, finding himself on the receiving end of a dynamic that would a thousand years later find its fuller expression in Jesus’ words as found in Matthew 7:3 [ESV]: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

Powerful reminder.  Even a king must tolerate AND heed a prophet’s reproach, for his failure to honor Torah, having violated three commandments: adultery and coveting, bookending a murder.

If David was seduced by the royal view of divine right, he is now shown to be answerable to the covenantal reality – something he cannot escape.

All are accountable before God, that is the final word.

Now, knowing this, what stands out is that even if Nathan took care and had a strategy to ensure David owned his sin, there is the evidence that what set David apart was his acceptance of that word.  Unlike some in positions of power, he did not weasel his way out it… He did not tweet about other people who had done something bad or worse…. He did not try to spin it as fake news as to what had transpired with Uriah.  He did not go looking for prophets who would whitewash his sins because, after all, there was so much “good” he was doing that they wanted the government to do.

No, David owned the acceptance.

He saw his spiritual blindness for what it was.  His moral courage found its footing, and his repentance was sincere.  He abandons his sense of moral autonomy and returns to living in the covenantal relationship that starts with God.

Spiritual maturity can indeed emerge out of the deepest of moral failures…

When the truth is fully embraced about oneself, then the past becomes just that… past, through the forgiveness of our Lord, and…

When one ensures a means of spiritual accountability.

This brings me to what I recall from 2006, when I was amid a year-long clinical training program.

Not everyone has a Nathan.

Not everyone has someone inspired by the Letter of James (5:19-20, NRSV), where it is written:  “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Often, folks just stay silent.  Perhaps because they know they aren’t perfect themselves.  Perhaps because they fear being judgmental, or just being wrong.

But, as my supervisor added to the insight Kenny had shared with me five years earlier, he noted to my group that while we assume friends will tell us the truth – they generally won’t, unless we give them permission.

Why, one might ask?

Well, perhaps simply because they so value the friendship, they are afraid to risk it.

Does it really matter?

As to the questions, one pastor has suggested these five [edited]:

1. What are you doing to enjoy life?  Calling upon us to pursue legitimate pleasures—in balance with our life responsibilities.  “Shooting the breeze” about your favorite hobby is not just wasting time while your waiter brings your breakfast; it is part of the accountability relationship.

2. What new stressors are entering your life?  When we don’t feel like anyone knows or understands what we’re going through, all of the lies that make sin appealing become more convincing.  Sometimes our friend may be able to suggest things to reduce the stress, but –even if they can’t — these are not wasted conversations.

3. Would you like to “just hang out”?  If accountability partners only spend time together “doing accountability” then their relationship will likely begin to feel like a sin-hunt.  Having times when you “hang out” is vital to accountability providing the long-term protection.

4. Who or what is getting too much air time in your thought life right now?  Asking this question is a great way to become self-aware of our thoughts.  Similar to the stress question, it doesn’t have to carry the negative connotation.

5. What are you passionate about in the coming weeks, months, or year? How it is going?  Your friend should already know, but if they don’t, then they have to know what “it” is before they can ask how “it’s” going.

Hearing these, the real question for us is, to whom would we willingly give permission to seek such truth?

Well, I am pretty sure after 35 years that Julie will tell me most of the time, but…. Sometimes, no matter the love and friendship, we may not hear our spouse holding us accountable.  We might instead just push back, or just have selective hearing!

And let’s be real, I don’t think it’s much fun or even fair to place that whole burden on our spouse or significant other.

As for me, I added to my close circle along the way, not knowing how much I would need it.

I had been severely injured, as I have mentioned, in 2010.  What you would not know is that only a few months before I had assumed a position as a regimental chaplain, where every chaplain had put on an eagle, making O6.  It would not happen for me, not with me injured as I was.

A few weeks passed and I was talking with one of those trusted agents of mine, a friend whom I had so empowered to tell me truth about myself – even if it cost the friendship – so I would stay on the right track.

I had begun to pity myself and commented to him, “Well, there goes captain.”

The other end grew quiet.

Then two simple sentences.

“Vince, do you remember when you made me promise?  You’re doing it, man.”

The promise had been initiated when I had promoted to commander, and I had told him if I ever sounded like my rank risked being more important to me than my calling, he must do whatever he needed to get my attention.

It hit me.

All I could say was, “Yeah, you’re right,” and got myself back in the lane that a better part of me had long before chosen.

It doesn’t have to be about the 10 Commandments, or the Golden Rule even, it can even just be about one’s state of mind.

I just needed kind truth.

Eight years have passed.

He and I are still good friends.  We don’t agree on politics and we differ on some aspects of faith, but I will never doubt his counsel if he picks up on something that I need to hear about myself.

SO WHAT?

I would challenge you to identify your own accountability partners and/or invite a couple of “trusted ones” to officially become your honest ballast — as Nathan was to David.  Having relationships we can rely upon to have our back through honest communication is truly among the best gifts we could ever have:  as such accountability is really about helping us to live life well.   AMEN.

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Pastor’s Note:  There are a great number of books and articles, the one I cited and edited, is just one, but I like it because it isn’t about being on a “sin hunt” but just keeping healthy in life… so one is less likely to step into the wrong path.  “5 Questions I Wish My Accountability Partner Would Ask Me,” Brad Hambrick, dated 22 Jun 2015.  Accessed on 04 Aug 2018, at https://www.covenanteyes.com/2015/06/22/5-questions-i-wish-my-accountability-partner-would-ask-me/

Curiosity… The Disciple’s Vital Skill

Presentation6Sermon of 29 Jul 2018, preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Hampton, Va.  One of the great values I obtained out of my mentors in early life and in going through a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency, has been the value of curiosity.  The longer I live, the more I realize that in conjunction with humility, it can transform all relationships – and most of all, that with our Lord. – Vinson

GOSPEL OF JOHN 6:1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.  Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.  Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.  When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.  Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,  “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”  Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.  Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.  When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”  So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.  When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”  When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.   When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.  The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.  When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.  But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”  Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

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INTRODUCTION

Maggie, our almost 10-year old Golden Retriever/Australian Shepherd mix can be insistent.

Very.

Sometimes annoyingly so.

She doesn’t just shrug and wander off.  Like the woman before the unrighteous judge, of whom Jesus once spoke, Maggie simply does not let up until she gets her way.

She will come up, smile and at the same moment make this “Harump!” kind of sound with a bit of whine tagged on at the end.  With this, Maggie will throw her whole body back about a half foot.

She will keep on doing this until she has backed up across the entire room.

If one of us hasn’t responded, she will come up close and start the show all over again, by first using her snort like a shovel under one’s arm, throwing in a high-pitched yelp that is equal to fingernails on an old-fashioned chalkboard.

Does she want to go outside?  Nope.  Maggie will just stand there, wag and smile.

If not already fed, it might be close to 6 pm and she knows it’s time.  But if that isn’t it?

Maybe she is out of water.  The dogs do go through a lot.

Sometimes, it is none of those three things.  For all the MANY different whines, moans and barks she has mastered, one of us might end up saying, “MAGGIE, WHAT DO YOU WANT?”

She’ll just stand there, wag her tag, and smile.

It may turn out, she just wants Simon, the Lab/Newfoundland mix to get up from where he is, so she can have his spot.  Whatever the case, like charades, Maggie leads us onward until we figure it out.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Theoretically it should be much simpler for people to make clear what we are seeking.  However, along the way in life about 20 years ago I came across a resonating insight of the late American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, in which he noted that for people – “The identified need is seldom the real need.”

FOR INSTANCE

It’s charades indeed!

For instance, we hear the words of the Gospel read this morning.

The people are hungry for signs.  They are hungry for bread.  It has been observed that good comes to those who follow Jesus, and so the expectations of the crowd are awakened.  As another has noted, “we want the big things.  Healing from horrible diseases.  Instant money when the house the bills are due.  A miracle for the child who cannot overcome addictions.  Sometimes this is the miracle that we get.”

But what is their real need?

The disciples are pushing hard against the sea, rowing all it’s worth for shore.

They seem to just want to get to shore, and off a troubled sea.

But what is their real need?

When hearing its telling from John, I find myself reminded of a phrase Julie said to me back when we were dating, about how “we live in the mystery.”  While John carefully unfolds the narrative, he makes us do some serious pondering.  Nothing is handed to us, no more than it was handed to the disciples.

We are disciples, after all.  Students.

OK, so what do we know about this all-so-familiar story… the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels.  It clearly it had much to say to the early church – and to us now, about the activity of Jesus in human life.

A test for disciples, with the crowd as his teaching aid, following this miracle worker “because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”  Then, having withdrawn to the mountain with his disciples, Jesus sees “a large crowd coming toward him,” and singles out Philip for a question to which he already knew the answer, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

Why would Jesus do that?

Philip immediately begins number-crunching.  A good estimate is six months’ worth of wages, something they probably did not have in hand.  Andrew, helpfully pipes up about a boy having 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, but it is a sad picture of a rather empty cupboard.

They are dutiful, but missing something.

It is easy to go after the hard numbers.  The on-the-surface facts.  If we’re honest, it is often the first place we go.  But was that really what Jesus was asking?

Then there are people themselves, who perceive the miracle only when after having eaten that they see all the baskets of leftovers from that small meal.  This is the trap John sets for us every time we draw a conclusion about who Jesus is, rather than ask a question.

When the people saw the sign that he (Jesus) had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’  When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

We can notice they had drawn a conclusion and the wrong one at that, as to his kingship.

But then John immediately places the second act to this miracle story, as the disciples basically road-trip Jesus by starting across the sea to Capernaum, since, as John notes, “it was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.”

Don’t you find that interesting?

Hard rowing for three or four miles against the wind in the darkness, they look over and see “Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.”

What’s his response?

‘It is I; do not be afraid.’”  Ego Eimi…  I am.  The same words spoken of God at the burning bush when Moses inquired to whom he was speaking.

We can talk about Jesus and the bread, or him catching up with the disciples by walking on the water, but in end, is it possible that the two joined stories are fundamentally about the presence of Christ, whatever one is facing?

Could they simply be about assurance of his care?

An Anglican Bishop in Uganda has observed: “One of the problems of evangelical Christianity is that we have no questions; we just have answers.  In fact, we tell the world, ‘Jesus is the answer’… but what is the question?”

And that really is the rub, and having friends who range from devout Christians to antagonistic atheists, it is the openness to curiosity, to tough questions even, that is the make or break as to why some people may like Jesus but not his church.  A life lived absent of curiosity is a life of conclusions, and I would suggest closes doors to people and just as much to the work of the Holy Spirit.

But what if we instead take a step back from that and ponder anew the person of Jesus evident in the Gospels?

B.C. Before Church, so to speak.

Have you ever noticed how often he opened or closed interactions, stories, and parables with a question, forcing his listeners to engage both their hearts and minds, while nurturing their spiritual curiosity?

Jesus didn’t invent this.  As Winn Collier writes in Holy Curiosity, “God asked a question to the two hiding in the garden (Adam and Eve, saying “where are you?”, and he has been asking questions to us ever since.”  Since we are created in the image of God, it should be no surprise then that the questions go both ways, or that Jesus would invite us to questions.

Think about it.  For instance, Moses “turned aside,” it is written to look at the strange site of a bush burning but not consumed, and there encountered God [see Exodus 3:1-3], or how Jacob showed himself unafraid to ask God his name [see Genesis 32:29].

It thus seems that before us are two paths we can take, as a wise friend and long-ago teacher of mine shared, one modeled by two detectives:

There’s the path of “Sherlock Holmes.”  He observes everything.  Misses nothing.  Links facts to facts, determines who the guilty party is and how the murderer did the dastardly deed.  Sherlock is all about the conclusions, but if you notice – his life is also devoid of joy.

Then there’s the path of “Columbo,” which one can still find in reruns.  Peter Falk driving around in his dusty old Fiat, wearing his favorite and too well-worn overcoat, trying not to leave cigar ashes everywhere, and basically not impressing whomever he was investigating for murder.  At least at first.

In that creative listening of curiosity absent judgment, the murderer ends up helping him solve the crime, because Columbo was non-threatening, just always really curious, picking up things, asking about them, and ultimately allowing the conclusions to become self-evident in such a way that led to a confession.  If you notice – his life was of joy, talking about his dog, his wife, and even getting smiles from the people he arrested.

With a bit of a mystic’s insight, though a psychiatrist, the late Karl Menninger spoke of such listening as “a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.  The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward.  When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”  After all, aren’t those the encounters that help clarify what we need most?

SO WHAT?

As a faithful student of Jesus., I suspect this is what John is pointing us to – that absent of curiosity, absent of the holy questions, we may have some nifty conclusions, but they may well miss the mark in discovering who Jesus is and what that means for us.  And yes, joy will likely likewise be absent, because joy runs in parallel with curiosity.

After all, isn’t’ that the table of joy to which we’ve been invited?  The holy dinner table around which we bring our curiosity about things of God, are surprised by grace, the questions may flow, and the Spirit abides?

Amen.

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Pastor’s Note:  Quote of  the Anglican Bishop, in Uganda, Rev. Dr. Zac Niringiye, found in:  https://www.wheaton.edu/academics/the-liberal-arts-at-wheaton-college/student-reflections-on-the-liberal-arts/reflections-on-curiosity-and-wisdom/.

At the Intersection of Coming & Going

Presentation522 Jul 2018 – Preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, Virginia.  I was out on the 15th, due to the flu.  Blessed to have a wonderful, caring congregation who are graced with incredible talent .  So, that rather medically enforced break upon me was certainly in mind as I set about writing this sermon!  -Vinson

Gospel of Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (NRSV)

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.  When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

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INTRODUCTION

It had been busy times while amid full-time seminary studies, serving three small congregations, working as a painter 30 hours a week on average, and then Julie and I weekend managing a Ronald McDonald House for families, many of whose children had cancer.

We both needed a break.

That meant leaving town, as we headed to the North Carolina mountains, to see Julie’s folks, maybe get some fishing in, sleep, and just recharge.  We did that every few months while I was in seminary.

Driving at night, I-40 snaked its way through the narrow valley paralleling the Pigeon River.  While not a moonless night, the valley was so narrow, with just enough room for the river and the interstate and no more, the light of the Moon did not reach the interstate.

It was such darkness that the lights of my Volkswagon pickup were quickly swallowed up.

Then, just as we crossed a bridge, I thought I saw a man.  His white t-shirt caught by our headlights, in those couple seconds it appeared it was bloodstained.  I asked Julie if she had seen him.

We pulled over.

He ran up, talking about an accident on the road beneath the bridge we had crossed.  He could not get his friend out.

Following him into the night, Julie got on the CB and called for help, her request relayed to the state police.  I would later learn a few truckers had pulled off and kept an eye on her, while one scrambled down the embankment to find me and the man who had hailed us.

Maybe 40 minutes into the search, the trucker and I found the vehicle way down an embankment.  A tree held the upside down car in place, maybe 20 feet from the river’s edge.  The driver had ejected from the car as it flipped over, and he was pinned under it against the rocky embankment, but alive and talking, as we began pulling out the granite rocks around him.

Our quest for a break from a hectic schedule and demands, interrupted, but really, could one choose otherwise than to act?

WHY I BRING THIS UP

It is this very intersection in our lives, where we find ourselves initiated into a scene echoing the words of Mark, where “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”  It is here where Jesus speaks of boundaries, of the need for time and place apart, of partaking of the sabbath, and yet…

FOR INSTANCE

We fight it.

And circumstances intrude, don’t they?

From an early age, it is self-evident that this is part of our humanity.  One only has to watch how a toddler will fight to stay awake, so as to not miss anything.

We chuckle at it, especially if the child isn’t ours!

We might as we chuckle at ourselves in self-confession.

We do not readily embrace rest.  We have oh so many reasons, all of which are meaningful.  I know this, because some of you – in addition to my wife! — have kindly reminded me and have rightly held me accountable to rest.

And so it is that Mark brings into clear focus the disciples and Jesus who are weary, worn-out, tired.  Jesus invites them to rest, an important, biblical invitation to God’s people.  Alas, there is a sting of truth in the comment by one pastor recently, who writes “we make busyness a badge of honor,” with the implication that we are, in his words, “worthwhile because (we’re) busy.”  Our worth, however, isn’t from the hours we work or volunteer or the lack of rest taken.  Our worth is the givenness of God, for that is His grace.

Now we do sort of fence ourselves in to do something about that need for rest, well, at least for an hour on Sunday morning.

We used to take the whole day.

In listening to each team’s report, Jesus must have been moved by their stories of healing children, inspiring people, and boldly witnessing, but he couldn’t miss the fatigue in their faces.

The disciples certainly earned a break.

Returning from their “sending out,” the word used to describe them, “apostles”, meaning “the ones sent out”, this is the first time they are given this title.  They have been so busy, that the text describes them as having “no leisure even to eat”.  If it were today, their cars would have been littered with coffee cups from 7-11 and fast food trash from various drive-thrus.

So, Jesus said to them: Come away for a while and -rest. I know a place close by ~ just across the lake ~ a deserted place, literally a bit of wilderness.

Jesus calls them to rest from their weariness.  While not uttering the word “sabbath,” it is that spirit which permeates the words of Jesus as he says “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”  He wasn’t inviting them to drop out.  He made no suggestion that their ministry of witness and compassion was complete.

He simply invited them to the life pause which is the sabbath, an invitation to observe the proper rhythm of the Christian life, one that they accepted – as they got into a boat and headed off.

Unfortunately for the disciples, rest got deferred.

The crowds anticipated where they were headed.  Perhaps we can imagine how the disciples might have felt when they saw that crowd waiting for them on the other side of the lake.

But the focus shifts.  I find it fascinating that the crowds always recognized Jesus, as Mark really gives no physical description.  Rather, Jesus is recognized for his very presence.  Seeing the crowd that found them, Jesus also had compassion, demonstrating again his concern for the people of Israel whom he likened to sheep without a shepherd.  His compassion, however, isn’t pity.

It is humanity connecting to humanity.

The word used in the text literally translated is that Jesus could feel the people’s need in his very bowels, where in that age the Roman-Greco world thought emotions resided.

It’s the kind of compassion that suffers alongside another, and so the tired and worn down Jesus chooses to suffer alongside those also tired and worn down by oppression, sin and illness.  He sacrifices his own need for rest, for the sake of others finding rest.  As another has observed, “The passage forces us to simultaneously believe in a God who calls us to rest, yet willingly gives up his own rest for others.”

I think that may be where we go off the proverbial rails.  We forget our Lord’s words about the importance of Sabbath, the literal breaking in upon the craziness of life.  We need to rest, Jesus tells us today.

Our world is a hectic place.

With all the miracles of modern technology we are only a cellphone away from whoever thinks he or she needs us.  We get addicted to being needed, which risks an imbalanced life and arid spiritual existence.

But, says Jesus, “Come away.”

The beauty of the commandment about the Sabbath is that it calls us to move away from all that normally fills our lives.

And just maybe, in that sacred space and time, with some time to practice the presence of God in our lives, we can better assess how we can effectively do God’s work.

I think this was what the British Bible teacher, William Barclay was getting at in his ageless commentary on this passage from Mark, writing: “The rhythm of the Christian life is the alternate meeting with God in the secret place and serving people in the market place.”  [William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, 157]

SO WHAT?

The essence of the Christian life exists in this ebb and flow.

Of moving into the presence of God from the busyness of life.

Of returning to involvement with people having been enriched by our spiritual renewal.

Of remembering the Old Testament teaching of Sabbath, which insists we are made for more than work, but in our humanity – we require relaxation, retreat, and refueling, not merely for the work before us, but for we ourselves who seek to be God’s faithful disciples.

I would ask you all, this week ahead, amidst all you do for others, to commit to MAKING time to rest and renew.  Our work will wait – because it is of God.  AMEN.