“Preventing or Welcoming Jesus?”

blogphoto.jpg*Preached on 12 January 2020, on the Sunday that the Baptism of our Lord is honored. at First Christian Church of Hampton, Virginia.  We all have our stories and are truly a people of “THE Story,” all of which in the sharing we grow stronger in our faith.  Short sermon and your thoughts are welcomed!

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Gospel of Matthew 3:13-17 (Contemporary English Version)

Jesus left Galilee and went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John.  But John kept objecting and said, “I ought to be baptized by you. Why have you come to me?”  Jesus answered, “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.”  Then John agreed.  So Jesus was baptized. And as soon as he came out of the water, the sky opened, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down on him like a dove.  Then a voice from heaven said, “This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with him.”

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INTRODUCTION

Do you remember the day?

The day you went to the baptismal water, or for some you, when you claimed those waters your parents had taken you to as an infant – now as your own choice?

I suspect our own stories of acceptance and of baptism vary across the scale with some on one end more like Timothy’s experience of being raised by two women of faith and coming to claim that faith as his own, while on the other end that is Paul, formerly Saul, encountering the risen Lord on the road to Damascus that he could finally see the Truth.  Some folk are somewhere in between, but I would submit all are equally valid because one way or another – we each come to claim our relationship with Jesus Christ.

As for me, it was Lent 1971 and I had been through the “Pastor’s Class” over those Sundays, classes led by my father – the pastor.  No problem with the classes, as one might guess.  However, if on the one hand I felt the calling, on the other hand it can be a bit confusing when it is your Dad and one worries that any decision might reflect well or poorly upon him, and certainly could positively or negatively impact our relationship.  That is often how pastor’s family members do feel, no matter the congregation.

Palm Sunday came.  I was nervous and yet made my confession, with Easter Sunday being the baptismal service.  But here’s the thing.  Every day I questioned myself:  Was I really ready?  Unknown to my Dad, I came up with a solution…

I asked God for a sign.  I was pretty specific, because, hey, that’s how I would be sure it was a sign, right?  A couple days passed.  No sign.

I asked God again, saying maybe I had asked a bit much, so how about a smaller sign, one which I named.  Days passed.  No sign.

Friday came, and I wasn’t sure whether to go ahead or back out.  I needed a sign, after all, to assure me.  So, now I asked God for a really small sign, just enough for me to be assured that my baptism was done for the right reasons, and not merely because my Dad was the pastor or that I wanted him to be approving of me.  Just enough from God to give me the go-ahead.  The sun rose and it was Easter morning.  Once more, there was no sign.

It would have made it so much easier for me, I remember thinking, before finally, little more an hour before morning worship, as I walked into the church, I said to God that I was going ahead without a sign.

I would be my own sign to myself, I said.  It was then I felt echoing through me: “Now you understand!”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Surrendering.

It doesn’t come easy and this path of obedience can surprise us.

FOR INSTANCE

For instance, what can, after all, seems a good thing to offer amid a challenging situation, would turn out to be something of a temptation, as John urged Jesus to baptize him instead – Jesus thereby NOT doing all that God required of him: Jesus will not be jammed into a box that would constrain God’s will for him and thus limit the hope that the Gospel offers to you and I.  Jesus will resist efforts from people of faith who think power is the pathway to salvation… because it isn’t.  Many in our own age resist with this prophetic word and damage the witness.  Against this, Jesus invites us, by way of his example, into considering what God requires of us, instead of the other way around.

So, even if our Bibles’ don’t helpfully give a title to today’s reading from Matthew as the “Temptation by John,” it’s there.  In Matthew 2:11, which was read last week, John had said:  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

This certainly created an expectation when Jesus made his entrance: Jesus would assume his proper position NOW, reflecting John’s own view of Christ’s path.  This quickly ran into the reality of Jesus, and like the devil’s temptations in the desert, as recorded in Matthew 4:1-11, in both instances it called upon Jesus to use his power now, for his own glory; and to avoid his emptying of self with the eventually of the pain and suffering of the cross.

When our Lord came to the river, as the Gospel of Matthew 3:14 reminds us, John said: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  “John would have prevented him,” we are told.  That very verb for “prevented” (diakoluo) is in the imperfect tense and thus implies a continuous resistance to Jesus’s direction, with John pretty much saying “But I won’t do it,” while Jesus says “I’ve come to be baptized.”  So, I find myself wondering if John pushed back three times, even though the text does not say, foreshadowing how three years later Peter would three times deny Jesus, as the Lord stood trial.  This is the only time this specific word makes its appearance in all of the New Testament, and the only other word that comes close, is in Matthew 19:14, when the disciples are seen to be “preventing” little children from coming to Jesus; something Jesus quickly squashed and directed his disciples to send the kids his way.

Learned teachers didn’t associate with kids, the disciples thought, much as an elder of my first church attempted in vain to prohibit me from playing with the little ones.

Learned teachers also didn’t baptize their superiors, John thought, believing he knows what’s the right thing to do by Jesus – that he is the one who should be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around – but this isn’t what God wants.

In both instances, whether of keeping the kids at bay or pushing back against baptizing Jesus because he thought that the stronger one had no need

I’ll also point out that in both instances, the opposite word in the Greek which means “letting it happen” – the same word commonly used as “forgiving.  NOW is the time “to fulfill all righteousness” and “to do all that God requires.”

Jesus demonstrated that…

he is obedient to God – doing all that  God requires,

he ushers in baptism into himself as opposed to John’s baptism for

he identifies with sinners and like sinners needed this sign of assurance.

All of this so it is that the One who is sinless is to be baptized for the forgiveness of sin, the One who is sinless will hang out with unholy sinners, and the One who is everlasting will one day die upon a cross a physical example of identifying with us.

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all this, as those who follow “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” as Paul puts it?

In each act of obedience, there is the great emptying of himself and setting aside power for humility, when God becomes truly human in Jesus – for our sakes.  If we would be that sign, which is obedience in humility, we would draw nearer to our Lord and come to be the hope Paul expressed in his Letter to the Philippians [2:1-11], writing:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Amen.

 

 

“Divorce Recovery: Pathway to Healing”

No, this isn’t a sermon, even though it is posted in my sermon blog.  It is, however, a pastoral letter for those for whom this may be of assistance, when divorce has ended a legal or common law marriage, whether or not one was married in the Church or before a judge.

In the spirit of the God who wills healing, this is offered in hope.

As a pastor, yes, I truly hope couples can navigate the challenges of the “two becoming one,” and live in happiness until death parts, but life is more complex; there may be times when it is better for a marriage to die; it may not be of one’s choosing; or one truly may have no choice when personal safety is paramount.  Up front, I stand in judgment over no one.   Divorce is awful enough without anyone piling it on!

Perhaps the most quoted of the Christian Scriptures during marriage ceremonies is how “love hopes all things, endures all things, love never ends.”  Alas, even if one ascribes to the expression that “marriages are made in heaven,” it is certain that are not maintained there, and sometimes marriages die.  This post is not an attempt to sort out exactly what Jesus meant in Matthew 19.  For that, I would recommend a marvelous in-depth Biblical study on the “Second Confrontation with the Pharisees on the Morality of Divorce: Is It Lawful For A Man To Divorce His Wife For Any Reason?,” which is a study on Matthew 19:3-12 & Mark 10:2-12, by the Rev. William F. Luck, Sr., a former Professor of Bible and Theology at the Moody Bible Institute.  I like it because it does not force a conclusion, but facilitates one just thinking things through what is an extraordinarily painful experience – after the fact, to help one navigate the post-divorce path so as to heal.

LINK:   https://bible.org/seriespage/7-teaching-jesus-divorce-matthew-193-12-mark-102-12

The Latin word divortium, from which we get our word divorce, means “to turn different ways.”  The road is now divided as two weary travelers tired of carrying the weight of broken dreams decide to go on alone despite the fear and uncertainty, or one decides to leave behind a life of abuse, or….  Divorce is when one comes to terms with the failures, limitations, resentments, cruelties and the self-righteousness of one another that may be insurmountable.  If one has ever read the short, powerful “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis, in one of the chapter “letters” it is demonstrated how resentments split relationships wide apart over time, much as a weed can fracture concrete over time.

But what happens AFTER….?

Some former couples do manage to go separate ways with less pain than others, and certainly one hopes that two people can truly wish each other well, divide the resources generously, and separate without lasting hard feelings and residual suffering.

For all, the ink has dried, the possessions are divided, and the two are no longer “one” but two again – setting aside what brought things divorce, the question then becomes: “What now?”

From my observations, as one who’s watched friends and family members go through the difficulties of divorce, and who has counseled numerous folk over 37 years of ministry, if there is no avoiding the pain of divorce, there are certainly some traps to watch out for (at the end of this post, I offer a list to consider so as to keep oneself accountable, if only to oneself, while moving forward.

Divorce, whether it feels like an emotional “release” or something else, there is that element in which the experience has been likened to “death without dying…. the ultimate rejection, the ultimate failure and defeat.” The stress is enormous and can become physiological for some.  I encourage those passing through such waters to have a solid counselor to process their experience and complete the journey across what cane be a dark valley of anger, depression, fear and grief.  Family and friends may just too close to the situation or not have the needed skills as a guide, and your relationship isn’t “just like” what they or another has gone through – you and your former spouse are unique as was the relationship.

When their are children, they may also need someone to process the experience with, BUT keep in mind: this isn’t about you or your former mate’s needs, it is about their needs as the innocent bystanders to marital breakup.  So they may need a counselor with whom they can speak without a parent in the room, OK?  Do not be offended by that.  This is about THEM healing, so they can have as healthy as possible relationships with EACH parent and certainly not your scars into any future adult relationship of their own.

Pastor Vinson
Rev. Vinson W. Miller
First Christian Church
Hampton, VA

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Here is an article worthy of consideration, by a family court judge, and which I came across many years ago, when I was teaching relationship skills classes with my Marine battalion. – Vinson

“Don’t Bad-Mouth: Divorcing Parents In Front of Children; Criticizing a Parent Also Hurts Kids”

By Honorable Anne Kass, District Judge, Second Judicial District, New Mexico

It’s been said a million times.  Divorced parents should not bad-mouth each other.  It hurts the children.  It has not, however, been said often enough that other family member and friends of divorced parents also should not degrade either parent to or in the presence of children.  That also hurts the children.  Children see themselves as half of each parent.  When children hear bad things about one parent, they hear bad things about half of themselves.  If they hear bad things about both their parents, they feel that both halves of themselves must be of little worth.

I may have a special insight into this issue that comes from my childhood.  Maybe some of you have had similar experiences.  Until I was 5 my parents, my brother and I lives with my paternal grandparents on a farm in South Dakota.  My father is an only child.  From his mother’s (my grandmother’s) point of view, no woman in the world ever could be good enough for her only son.  I remember that my grandmother used to criticize my mother.  She’d say things to me or in my presence about my mother’s shortcomings, little things such as, “Your mother can’t cook or she doesn’t clean house right.”  I vividly remember my grandmother saying bad things about my mother.  And even though I’m 45 now and I can intellectually understand what was behind my grandmother’s, I can still feel the hurt I felt when she put my mother down.

When divorce happens, it’s not only the parents who take sides.  Often the aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends take sides as well.  Divorcing parents are always ready to tell anyone who’ll listen about why the failed marriage was the other one’s fault. They want family members and friends to be on their side. Often they make it known that from their perspective if you’re not on their side, if you’re not with them, you must be against them.

It’s awfully hard not to sympathize with someone you know who’s going through the pain of divorce.  The sympathy can take the form of verbalizing the flaws of the other spouse.  But we all need to remember not to talk about a parent’s flaws to the children, and we need to be careful about talking when young ears can overhear.  Staying neutral when someone we love is going through the agony of divorce can be difficult, but it’s one of the kindest things we can do for our children.

The adage holds: “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

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Organizing One’s Thoughts & Behavior Going Forward

Cognitive Traps

  • Trying to “read the mind” of others. I’m not liked because I’m divorced.
  • Generalizing and labeling others & me. My ex is just no d— good.
  • Over-generalizing about my life situation. Nothing ever works out; I’ll always be lonely and never heal.
  • Focusing on the worst possible outcome. This divorce will make it impossible for me to ever trust anyone ever again.
  • Self-blame. If I had been more sensitive, this never would have happened.
  • Blaming others. He/she ruined our marriage by never giving me enough affection.
  • Worrying about possible outcomes. What if I can’t handle the loneliness.

Behavioral Traps

  • Difficulty in socializing. Dependency on parents or close friends.
  • Difficulty building new life w/ new friends. Clinging to an ex-spouse.
  • Living for others & ignoring my own needs.
  • Escape from oneself. Through drugs, alcohol, work, TV.
  • Sexual permissiveness. Affairs without emotional intimacy.
  • Rebound relationships. Seeking perfect partner to fill a lonely life.

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“Journeys”

blogphoto.jpg*Sermon preached on 05 January (Epiphany) 2020, at First Christian Church of Hampton.

Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12 (Common English Version)

When Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem in Judea, Herod was king. During this time some wise men from the east came to Jerusalem and said, “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard about this, he was worried, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem.  Herod brought together the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?”
They told him, “He will be born in Bethlehem, just as the prophet wrote,
’Bethlehem in the land
    of Judea,
you are very important
    among the towns of Judea.
From your town
    will come a leader,
who will be like a shepherd
    for my people Israel.’”
Herod secretly called in the wise men and asked them when they had first seen the star. He told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, let me know. I want to go and worship him too.”
The wise men listened to what the king said and then left. And the star they had seen in the east went on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  They were thrilled and excited to see the star.
When the men went into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they knelt down and worshiped him. They took out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and gave them to him.  Later they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they went back home by another road.
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INTRODUCTION

Journeys.

Life is full of them.

Some of short duration and some much more.

Some close by and others which stretch over miles and years; interactions with people and places of all kinds.

Perhaps because I lived in seven cites spread out over six states, from west to east coast, by the time I graduated from high school, the concept of journeys as evident throughout the Bible, has always intrigued me.

More often than not, journeys start NOT because someone wants to get up and move, but because God commands it – bluntly aloud for some, or in quiet realization and understanding in others.

Either way, “Get up and go,” people are told, even among we or they might not be thought of as God worshipers.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

The tale of the “Magi” makes clear, amid such journeys of seeking… one will be surprised by God.

FOR INSTANCE

If, in an earlier age when Moses had taken his father-in-law’s herd of sheep and goats across the desert to Sinai and noticed a “bush was on fire, but it was not burning up” – the first step on a journey culminating in the Israelites being freed from their Egyptian slavery… in Matthew we would hear how an unusual star was observed that would lead the magi to an obscure village in Judea called Bethlehem, where they would celebrate one born to free us all.

If we are honest, the challenge in the familiar, such as the Gospel reading from Matthew, is having heard it so many times, it’s rather easy to nod and mutter inside one’s mind, “Yes, yes, I’ve heard that all before and I know how it turns out.”

Does that make it less needful to hear again?

Does that preclude something that at this point in our lives we might not have noticed until now, as Matthew shines a light upon our own path?

So if the magi begin their trek from Persia or in that area of what we now call Iran, our crèches vainly attempt to jam them into the Christmas manger scene with Epiphany blended with Christmas.  Yet, as Matthew makes clear – this encounter doesn’t take place when Jesus is or close to two years old.

No longer a babe in a manger.  Now a toddler.  Time has passed.  The Holy Family has made their home in Bethlehem, the stressful night in that that inn’s stable is long past.  All seems calm, as the carol sings, but all of that is about to change.

Maybe the magi had drifted to the right or left on their journey, or perhaps the Book of Daniel was known to them and they had just spent time pondering and the star held its position.  I say this because the Book of Daniel spoke of the magi from the time of Daniel, with him being appointed over them due to his dream-interpreting skills.  While the book appears to be written in 455 BC, most scholars now date to around 164 BC, so it may have had a wider circulation because it would have already been in a Greek translation.  If we go to chapter nine, it speaks to the Messiah’s coming, in weeks of years, with the 62 plus 7 weeks prophesied meaning, according to the math – which was a specialty of the Persians – the Messiah would be identified in 29 AD – the year of Jesus’ baptism also marked on Epiphany.

Ok, perhaps it was a slow-moving star, or it stopped at points along the way for them to learn something… maybe the humility they would bring to the child they would honor.

All of this is entirely plausible and more, but what we do know is that the magi arrived when Jesus was about two years old – the timeframe in Biblical times, as we may recall from the story of Isaac [Genesis 21:8], when a child would be weaned.  I just don’t think that is an accident of scripture, for the magi to have arrived in the timeframe for the first of a series of transitions which will bring the Christ Child to adulthood, and one day would see him to the Cross, the Tomb, and Resurrection morn.

There is also a question as to whether these Magi were wise women, not wise men.  Yes.  Women.  Zoroastrianism, which was the forerunner of the magi of Jesus’ time, was known to have women priests and in ancient Persia there were women astronomers and rulers.  In my reading the recent work of a Catholic scholar, he writes:  “The main reason to think of the presence of one or more women among the magi is the background story of the queen of Sheba, with her quest for Israelite royal wisdom, her reverent awe, and her three gifts fit for a king” when she meets Solomon.

As we are aware, the Bible often uses story to explain story, so Fr. Viviano reminds us how in the First Book of Kings, Chapter 10:1-29, the Queen brings gifts of gold and spices such as myrrh and frankincense.  He goes on to points to the Israelite tradition of personifying wisdom as female, as is obvious in any reading of Proverbs (especially Proverbs 8:22-30, 9:1-6) and Sirach 24.  But here is the possible clincher, and it is a shame Janice isn’t here today because she would probably be nodding at me strongly!  Even more compelling is that in the Middle East it would have been inconceivable for men to be in the presence of a woman who was not a female relative, without the presence of other women, more so as the boy was about at the age to be weaned.  Instead, the text shows Joseph as conspicuously absent, perhaps he was working, when the magi visit.  We are not told.  But given how Matthew’s infancy account normally narrates events from Joseph’s point of view of Joseph, this is very noticeable.  Of course, there is also the aspect to the magi stopping to ask for directions!

If David was secretly once anointed to follow King Saul, with him unaware, this Son of David will now be anointed in secret – not with the oil of gladness, but with gifts foreshadowing his death for all, a kingship that is a threat to any empire as it calls us out of the culture of the empire into the culture of holiness in treatment of all.

Herod will quickly seek the death of the child king whose name he does not know.  Jerusalem’s religious elite who have aligned themselves with Herod, even if he is distasteful to their morals, use scripture to identify where to look.  They had not noticed the new thing God was doing, and implicitly back this despot over one born in lowly circumstance who will comfort the poor, befriend the abandoned, welcome the foreigner, is the bearer in the flesh of God’s word for all humanity.

They alone who have taken a journey to see Jesus and come from afar.  Yet if the star led them through Jerusalem, not to it, then their celestial revelation was only partial.  As we will ourselves readily confess, our intellect really will only carry us so far; we need God’s word in the Scriptures, which the magi would not have likely known.  So they got close, just six miles from Jesus… but for more specifics – they ask Herod.

The magi would have stood out, even in the mix of cultures that would have been Jerusalem under the Roman Empire.  A lengthy caravan.  Strangers looking for a newborn king.  A paranoid king with spies everywhere.  As for Herod, it’s no surprise he wouldn’t know where the Messiah would be born.  He may call himself the “king of the Jews,” but that’s just a way for him to maintain control on the faith – he isn’t Jewish by blood nor authentic practice.  He gathers the religious experts, the chief priests and scribes who immediately identify the place where the Messiah will be born, on the basis of Micah 5:2.

If they knew Herod’s terrible, savage history in how he came to power and maintained it, I doubt they would have thought of Herod soon ordering the death of infants.  Maybe they thought they somehow controlled him or his impulses in their symbiotic relationship.  Maybe they thought there was a limit to his cruelty, after all it was children.  It is amazing how those of faith can deceive themselves, or minimize the moral foulness of a leader’s actions, surrendering all prophetic voice, but they do – because they want access to the power of the state for their own agendas.

You see, by being so tied to the court, the religious folk thought they had arrived, they weren’t about to take anything looking like a journey, even that six miles they could cover in a couple hours on foot.  While they identify the correct location, we cannot help but notice they didn’t join the magi on day trip to nearby Bethlehem their journey to see the young Jesus… and they threw their blinders on whatever bad would happen, as if that would negate their accountability… for an infant named Jesus amid humble surroundings just as easily as some do these days as to a child named Jesus (Spanish pronunciation) in a caged cell on our border.

The pagan magi will act like God’s people in verse 11, the king of God’s people acts like a notorious pagan king of old in verse 16.

In what is a play on words, if the magi went home by another road to avoid seeing Herod again, it also appears that they went home with another “way.”  In the Book of Acts, we are repeatedly told that the disciples of Jesus were called “followers of the Way” [see  Acts 9:2; 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4 & 24:14].  This new “way” was not to “lean on their own understanding,” discovering a king amid his humble circumstances and their humility of seeking.

SO WHAT?

To the Jewish hearer of Matthew, magi were the epitome of Gentile idolatry, and if spoken of as “wise men” – they were practiced as magicians, star-gazers, pseudo-scientists, fortune-tellers, and astrologists – nearly all of this specifically prohibited in the Hebrew scriptures.  Those to whom Matthew bore witness in his Gospel, might even recall that the magi portrayed in their Greek translation of the Book of Daniel, were selfish, incompetent and brutal pagans [see Daniel 2:2, 10].  That’s how Daniel got the job instead!

Yet here, the magi are the heroes of this first story of homage to Jesus after his birth.  Matthew is making a point, one not to be missed by his ancient hearers.

No Jew would have dreamed of magi being in a crèche.

They are heretics.

They don’t worship the right God.

They are the wrong race.

The foreigner and pagan magi will worship Jesus.

Those we least expect to honor Jesus may worship him.

Those we least expect to oppose Jesus may seek his death.

In short, those who encounter Jesus are changed, when we embrace the journey of whatever distance, six miles or across a sea, to meet him in our hearts.

Amen.

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References:  Brian Stoffregen, Matthew 2:1-12, Epiphany of Our Lord – Year A.”  Accessed on 03 Jan 2020 at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt2x1.htm;

“Looking for the RIGHT Messiah”

blogphoto.jpg*Sermon preached on 15 December 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  Honestly, I cannot say the ending is exactly as preached… there was some “in the moment” to it, but such as this is!

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Gospel of Matthew 11:2-11 (Common English Bible)

Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  Jesus responded, “Go, report to John what you hear and see.  Those who were blind are able to seeThose who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed.  Those who were deaf now hear.  Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them  Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me.”  When John’s disciples had gone, Jesus spoke to the crowds about John: “What did you go out to the wilderness to see?  A stalk blowing in the wind?  What did you go out to see?  A man dressed up in refined clothes?  Look, those who wear refined clothes are in royal palaces.  What did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  He is the one of whom it is written: Look, I’m sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you“I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist.  Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

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INTRODUCTION

I will admit I am not a big fan of all the self-help stuff in books and web blogs, but there is a narrative I came across as to someone’s experience.

“I’m sitting at the party.  I planned it so perfectly.  I would throw a surprise party for my best friend on my birthday.  She’ll be so surprised!  She walks in the door.  She looks surprised. She greets everyone and thanks them for coming.  She seems to be happy yet……I know her better than anyone.  I don’t feel that she’s as excited as I expected her to be.  I don’t sense the appreciation that I had expected.  I start to feel upset.  I start to feel annoyed.  What is this other feeling that’s gnawing at me?  I start to feel resentment.  All the planning, all the work, giving up my birthday celebration. I quietly acknowledge what I’m feeling and remind myself: ‘Expectations are premeditated resentments.’”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Isn’t it frustrating and confusing when our plans don’t happen in the way and in the form WE expect and want?

Christmas brings certain expectations.

We bring certain expectations.

But sometimes Jesus bursts our proverbial “bubble” in order to be far more than we can ask or think, with JOY that isn’t found in tinsel and trees and presents under the tree, but in transformed lives.

FOR INSTANCE

The background to our Gospel reading is that the party was not unfolding in the form for which the disciples of John and perhaps John himself had envisioned.  So as his ministry moves toward its close “John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” [Matthew 11:2].

From their perspective, things had started out good, with Jesus volunteering to be baptized by John, not out of a need for forgiveness but in obedience to God’s purposes.  But by the time we get to John 3, we are told of a dispute when some of John’s disciples debated another Jew as to what made John’s baptism different that the standard ceremonial cleansing, when the man pointed out that across the river how the crowds swelled around Jesus.  The disciples of John then come to John, saying:  “Rabbi, the one who was with you (that means Jesus!) on the other side of the Jordan River, about whom you testified—see, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him!” [3:26]  Later on, John’s disciples would directly confront Jesus, saying:  “’Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’  And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast’” [Matthew 9:14-15].

Perhaps they saw everything for which John had strived was at risk, not seeing his work as the plow tasked with breaking up the beat down, hard soil, that it could receive the grace of water and seed – and thus new life.  Harsh judgment being now defined in the ministry of Jesus as redemptive.  Jesus apparently not the type of Messiah of which John preached, but one’s whose strength was found in weakness, a healer in whom good news was evident in mending what was broken, lifting up what had fallen, cleansing what was disease, hearing and seeing once again.

It was confusing to them.  I have to wonder if it is because in our humanity we might not think of JOY as something that actually can shake us to our foundations, challenging our ways, creating doubts about the faith we have clung to that might be more old wineskin than new.  The surprise of JOY, may upset us, in order to move us from the momentary bits of happiness, but to the water of JOY that in Jesus ceases our thirst as we meet him in the deepest place of true acceptance and resting ourselves truly in God.

Perhaps then, it is no wonder that after 70 years we’re still watching the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  It resonates…even among those who can readily affirm and acknowledge so many blessings, in the mix of memories and emotions that can be this season.  Perhaps we may know that the utterly transparent and convincing energy Jimmy Stewart brought to his role was found in his own experience of having just concluded World War II as a real-life “flak happy” emotionally broken pilot with what we would now call PTSD.  Stewart then, portrays a man who breaks only to be rescued by joy.  One who was so wrapped up in suffering that he was blind to see, hear or feel goodness, until God meets him through Clarence… at the bridge.  Light in the darkness at the very moment of impending failure, not unlike what John and his disciples may have been feeling.

It is, after all, at such a bridge – as John languishes in the prison that will eventually be his place of execution – that the disciples of John ask the pithy and penetrating question:  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

Brutal honesty?  Perhaps.

An edge of disappointment, or jealousy between the lines?  Maybe.

But notice how Jesus receives the question as he says SEE the true judgment and righteousness in which healing shows its face in Jesus’ compassion.  Those in need.  Those without anyone to help them.  All are brought in.  Judgment isn’t to destroy the wicked, but to restore them with a second chance.  Repentance is that which offers mercy and healing.  Spiritual health is to exist where it has been absent.  In other words, Jesus came for us.  We are the ones who need help, in the light of day or loneliness of night, on rainy streets or those covered with winter’s snow.  SEE, Jesus says, in him God speaks to our woundedness of the JOY that God holds out for us.  Matthew rightly places this passage between  chapter 10 where Jesus is preparing his disciples in chapter 10 for their future suffering in defense of the Gospel and chapter 11’s conclusion where Jesus declares across the ages:  “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.  Put on my yoke, and learn from me.  I’m gentle and humble.  And you will find rest for yourselves.  My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

It is no accident that if the Old Testament has no healing of the blind receiving sight, nor the New Testament noting any of Jesus’ disciples performing such a miracle – it is Jesus’ most common miracle.  It is what Jesus invites those now with this question to do… to SEE what is happening.

SO WHAT?

I am reminded of a Marine with whom I once served.  We were deployed and morale was starting to wear thin.  Earlier in the day I had driven a couple hours distant to pick up a Red Cross message to deliver, when my HUMVEE passed by another chaplain in the dusty terrain.  She tossed a couple cans of regular Coke into my lap.  I can’t drink the stuff, so I just jammed it in my cargo pocket and forgot it.  That night, standing out in the pitch dark night of a new moon, unable to see who was near me, the Marine heard my voice and came close.  I could see him by his cigarette’s glow as he confessed he was just done… depressed… and ready to go home.  Not a good thing in a staff NCO.  Then he said suddenly, “You know, I’d be better if I could just have a Coke.”  I remembered the can in my pants and pulled it out as his jaw dropped.  I would never have guessed a Coca Cola would be a part of someone’s spiritual conversion, but grace takes some interesting paths, huh?  Even years alter, he still speaks of that can.

Advent is our time of expectation, a time of waiting for the coming of our Saviour.  He comes among us in His Word and through the Holy Spirit . He stirs us up and gets us involved in His ministry among those who are neglected by our society. May Jesus come to us, and in him shall we experience the participatory joy God to which invites un in the kindness of a mutually accountable love.

Amen.

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Reference: https://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/expectations-are-premeditated-resentments

 

 

 

“Unexpected Hour, Season of Hope”

blogphoto*Preached on 01 December 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.

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Gospel of Matthew 24:36-44 (New Revised Standard Version)

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

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INTRODUCTION

It was 1996, four years after the US military shuttered all our bases and left the Philippines.  My carrier, along with the rest of our strike group, was making the Navy’s first port call since then, with all but a skeleton crew ashore on liberty, just as a typhoon suddenly made a move toward Manilla Bay in which we were anchored a few miles from shore.  Liberty boats were quickly mobilized and word passed, as  they sped back and forth to the piers in our wain attempt to recall all our sailors.

We were partly successful.

The waves and wind became more ominous until time finally ran out.  We weighed anchor and put to sea, as we sought to outrun the wind and waves.  In this area, we know that’s what the Navy does when a hurricane approaches, for the ships are safer at sea.

And left behind in Manila?  Almost 3,000 sailors were left stranded and being sailors, soon penniless.  When we returned a few days later after the typhoon turned and went another direction, they were all waiting for us!

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Yes, the ship could put to sea at any moment, Matthew is telling us with an urgency that reminds those with ears to hear.  He does this by recalling the story of Noah and how, as Jesus put it: “…that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” [Matthew 24:36].  Here is this reminder that if we, like Noah, may live in an age of misplaced priorities – both inattentive to God and careless of one another – we should be prepared to encounter Jesus when he breaks into our timeline.

FOR INSTANCE

HOPE, our word for Advent today. isn’t a word explicitly used in our readings this morning.  You won’t find it, but it is present, and even if Advent is thought of as a time to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, it’s also reasonable to assume Matthew isn’t talking about Advent.  Nor, is he nodding to the idyllic, Christmas card-like image of angels and shepherds, star and pronouncement.  If we would scroll back to the early chapters of Matthew, he portrays Joseph as giving serious consideration to ditching the now pregnant Mary, and then there’s the horrific mass infanticide by a despotic ruler, before finally the Holy Family flees… becoming refugees in the very land where a millennia before the people of Israel had been enslaved.

It really is surreal, when one thinks about this chain of events, isn’t it?

As to hope?  Where is it found?

In Matthew, we then hear Jesus say “…two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” [Matthew 24:41-42].  Unfortunately, as one pastor notes, “Some of our Christian brothers and sisters have staked a claim to a very specific meaning in these verses.”  The whole ‘Left Behind’ series of novels and their one billion-dollar windfall has thus “successfully planted a particular belief in popular consciousness, so successful that many believe it’s THE Christian belief.  It’s tempting to say, ‘Ah. The rapture!  That’s what Matthew wants us to be ready for…’

It isn’t.

Of course, in every generation across the millenniums, there’s always been those who have tried to play prophet in this regard, something Matthew is sternly warning against.  Popularized misunderstandings have become more problematic since the mid-nineteenth century, when an English minister insisted the return of Jesus would be at the head of an army to usher in Armageddon and true believers would be spared those final tribulations by being whisked off to heaven.  Many have since adopted this belief, one which can easily be added to the stack of beliefs some think are in the Bible… but aren’t.

Instead, I would suggest Matthew’s emphasis is:

First, speaking to what has ALREADY happened:  the change in the seasons with the appearance of Jesus, a star announcing his birth, his death and resurrection being accompanied with earthquakes, raising of saints and their appearance in Jerusalem, and then an angel who opens the tomb.

And, second, Matthew speaks to an awareness that the final judgment is actually always pressing in upon the present through the words of a Gospel which kicks off with the birth of him whose name of Emmanuel means “God with us,” and concludes with Jesus’ commitment of: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” [Matthew 28:20].

It’s no small wonder that the New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright has pointed out that the Greek word parousia, which is translated as “coming” in verses 37 and 39 of our reading from Matthew, means “presence” or “arrival.”  It is NOT a reference to Jesus’ literal downward travel on a cloud, but an emphasis on the “presence” of Jesus as opposed to his “absence” (“apousia”): the arrival of someone who is nevertheless at the same time not present.

So it is that in Matthew’s poetic prophetic language speaks to both hope and fear, and of God confronting people both with judgment AND confronting His people with vindication.  Matthew is sharing with us how the Son of Man is both present with his people NOW and to the end of the age, at the same time as Jesus proclaims the Son of Man will come at the end of the age.

We can miss that, I think.

Matthew thus summons us to a life of wise vigilance, instead of a life of anxiety.  He uses four pithy one-sentence parables to make his point, and beyond our reading, follows up with two expansive and familiar parables focused upon watchfulness, before Jesus then says:

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” [Matthew 25:31-33].

Here is the fulfillment of the word of Isaiah in our Old Testament reading for today, wherein it is written:

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. [Isaiah 2:3b-5].

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of it all, besides our potentially shattered images of how Advent actually works?  As those who are partnered with Jesus in the work of reconciling ministry in a fragmented world, we would ask what does Jesus “coming in glory” have to say, not just to nations, but to us.

It is on the heels of Jesus’ emphasis upon watchfulness in hope that he then says how:

…the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” [Matthew 25:34-36].

It is such an embodiment of HOPE, which marks Advent, which draws our attention to how, day by day, perhaps with little or no thought, we evidence God’s redemptive justice through conforming of ourselves more to the compassionate love of God in Christ Jesus.

In the unexpected hour , Advent is the revelation of who we are and how God notices, and that if there is watchfulness, it is one that is non-anxious, secure in His love.

In the unexpected hour, Advent is proclaiming that all manner of men and women and children have the capacity to envision the reign of Christ in ways which kindle real hope for the return of the departed Son!

In the unexpected hour, Advent is where we meet Christ amid all of this creativity and radical, unreasonable hopefulness – for ourselves and for others!  Here, we make ourselves ready to see the face of Jesus in the one person in the world who drives us the most crazy, makes us the most angry, or has hurt us the most deeply.  Here we are reminded afresh, to ready ourselves to greet Jesus in the tense work environment as much as at the bedside of a beloved friend and saint of His kingdom.

In the unexpected hour, here we make ready to encounter our dearest hope.  Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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“A Messy & Joyful Thanksgiving!”

blogphoto*Sermon preached on 24 November 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton, at our Thanksgiving Sunday service.

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Book of Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.  You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”  When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.   So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.  Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Letter to the Philippians 4:4-9 (New Revised Standard Version)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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INTRODUCTION

I have been mulling over Paul’s words to the church at Philippi, the church that most clearly of the seven to which he wrote, had embraced the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In words that sets the tone for our walk towards Thanksgiving Day, Paul wrote “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” [Philippians 4:8]

 Maybe it seems at odds, but this lessen for today especially resonates with me following the death of my cousin Janice.  Not because of her death itself, however tragic, but because of the life in her which had truly come into being in the more recent years.  At her service, in the most authentic sharing of a life I have ever heard, I went from having a somewhat two-dimensional understanding of Janice to one that is more three-dimensional… as I moved from seeing her meals and pics of her relaxing on Facebook to learning of the countless words of kindness and encouragement she spent her Saturday morning sharing with an ever-growing list of strangers made friends… of her efforts in and out of school to help students… and knowing how she had been raised in a life of privilege and yet easily entered into lives without… creating what most makes for a purposeful life, one that shares hope and love and joy.  She finished strong.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I say this, because as those gathered in Christ, we are all a people of sacred stories, circumstances both of and not of our choosing, life events and encounters with people both seemingly random and intentional, all of which comes together as we chart our path of becoming.

FOR INSTANCE

For instance, let’s look at this morning’s lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy, one of our Thanksgiving readings.  It’s at the end of Moses’ life, which is not revealed until later, in the 31st chapter, When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them: “I am now one hundred twenty years old. I  am no longer able to get about, and the Lord has told me, ‘You shall not cross over this Jordan.’” [Deuteronomy 31:1-2].

But before he can get that concluding word, Moses first recounts the long story they had shared, and for which they would now give thanks.  The story of God’s decisive act, having heard their cries and rescued them from slavery, having taught them in the desert a much deeper understanding of their of faith and not just their tribal identity as a people, of experiencing amid the years of sojourn a new relationship with God and one another, and finally how God was now bringing them to a place of abundance.  The tribes are encamped in Moab, across the River Jordan; Moses is dying and knows he will not have the privilege of entering into that land, this reluctant leader whose authority and power was found in God.  He had seen them through so very much, plagues that freed them from the grasp of the Egyptians, a sea that opened a path, a barren desert that provided daily manna for sustenance.  Yet now, he will go no farther.

After all, Moses understood something:  The Story isn’t about him, but the One who called them forth from hopelessness, and the narrative of those shared years will not be sanitized of their humanity, which only makes it that much more powerful.  God will guide homeward a flawed people; God’s purposes will be fulfilled among the most unlikely and in unexpected ways.  It is this which Moses recounts, their entire story of salvation under some very particular and poignant circumstances.

All of it… the really messy parts as well as the teaching… as they learned to surrender themselves to God, in order to experience true victory.

We do like to skip over the messy parts of life, not wanting to remember the hurts and sadness.  However, last Sunday as I listened to my cousin’s husband speak at her service, he started the story of Janice with the rawness of what had lay behind him as he first met my cousin.  Her own story certainly had its scars and a long season of sadness.  Steve spoke of meeting her and how — unlike all his previous first dates that had quickly become last dates — Janice asked about where he lived.  Inwardly preparing to accept yet another brush off, he said “in a camper,” since his ex-wife had gotten the house and three years on, he was rebuilding his personal life.  Janice’s response wasn’t to find a way to excuse herself, as all the others.  Instead, it was to say, “How interesting!” — and then to ask more of HIS story.  That is anything but typical, as the tendency is to shy away from such, but this the way of true spirituality… to see beyond simple circumstances to how they have shaped another soul… OR… a people.

The passage through such messiness is the very passage of grace.  So listen again without rush, and let the words soak in, if you will, when you hear these words of thanksgiving, spoken by Moses:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” [Deuteronomy 26:5-9].

You see, thanksgiving, as I saw my cousin’s husband, her sisters and brother poignantly share – each from their own experiences and perspective – provides us a larger understanding not merely of deeds, but of what those deeds ~actually MEAN~.  If we really embrace the act of thanksgiving, can we not then hear in our text from Deuteronomy that thanksgiving is the faithful act of holding as one, both what is bitter as much as what is sweet?  It is to hear and to see that wholeness of life, if we are to discover that amidst it all we have been faithfully loved, guided, and cared for, …thus knowing both compassion and blessing.  In describing how they are to give thanks, Moses with intentionality reminds them to remember the hard parts, not just the happy ending.  It is this which is the authentic life, the richest life, the one in which God moves most fully, where nothing is edited out of the sacred story, to be clipped from the Word of scripture or one’s life.  In the act of remembering, Moses gives us an example, as if reading the pages from his personal spiritual journal, remembering the story, all of its winding path, as that which equips God’s people to speak the word of Life to one another and thus offer true thanks to God.

Then the party can begin, as Moses says: Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” [Deuteronomy 26:11]  It is just so easy to speed read past this one sentence.  Thanksgiving isn’t any ordinary party, one in which we invite our best friends, our neighbors, those who look like us or have our lineage in this church or otherwise.  Levites were the best of the best, the ruling class of temple priests.  On the other hand, the “aliens” were wanderers mixed in with the Israelites, separated from their own peoples and being tribeless – vulnerable to enslavement in that age.  But here, before the Lord God, the sit-down is a place of equality and of a broader definition of what’s “family” among God’s people.

You see, if we really consider our lives as those called by God – comprising both the beautiful and even the painfully messy – then not only should we then perceive the blessings God holds out for us, but also how such blessings matter the most.  These – both the received good and the perceived bad, – my friends, my family, are what we should be celebrating as we approach our own Thanksgiving feast.

SO WHAT?

If we were to each tell our own authentic thanksgiving stories, they would probably sound something like either “I cannot imagine how we got from there to here,” or “Every road I traveled and every choice I made was designed to bring me right here.”  It seems that Moses told the story as “Point ‘A’ to Point ‘B,’” before bringing to a close how God brings His people “right here,” saying “The Lord your God himself will cross over before you” [Deuteronomy 26:2].

As those who “…gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” to “Sing praises to His Name” proclaiming that “he forgets not His own,” words written a generation before immigrants landed on these shores some four centuries ago, we hear our own voice, our own church’s story, and ours individually.

We gather, having an opportunity to tell it again in the multitude of settings our lives pass through each day, at this stop on the banks of the river looking to what lies ahead, to marvel as to our journey and the powerful and loving heart which created the vision, guiding us, even in the times we may have felt set upon, confused, or alone.  And every one of us can celebrate – truly celebrate – the bounty received at God’s generous hands.  If our spiritual ancestors once were sustained day by day by manna amid their Wilderness trek, in the table we soon gather around, we receive in Christ “…the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… “ in the assurance that in Christ none hunger and none thirst. [John 6:32-35].

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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“Holding Fast… to Hope” (A Sermon about Moral Injury )

blogphoto*Sermon preached on 10 November 2019, at First Christian Church., with some “tweaks” while I was preaching that are not reflected in this text.    “Moral Injury” is a tough topic, but this is absolutely a crucial role for followers of Jesus to assume, if we are to take seriously our call to be a “ministry of reconciliation” [2 Corinthians 5:18] .  In the words and deeds of Christ, in the kindness of those who proclaim him, we are called to make a place in the beloved community for others to heal from their own spiritual injuries (those inflicted by wartime service and those inflicted by any number of circumstances having nothing to do with military service.  It is NOT the same conversation to what so often overlaps moral injury, that of PTSD.”  I know this topic, like many, not simply from books, articles and lectures.  I know it from personal, painful, life experience.  I have my stories, some which have taken years to find a new ending.  With hope of understanding, may you move toward your own peace, as a beloved child of God.  – Vinson

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Book of Haggai 1:15-2:9 (New Revised Standard Version)

…on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month. In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?  How does it look to you now?  Is it not in your sight as nothing?  Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.  For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts.  The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.  The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

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INTRODUCTION

At the church I once served in Western Pennsylvania, on the corner of our parsonage yard between house and church, stood a large brick marker.  At its center was a glass-enclosed list of all the men of the village of Lone Pine and the surrounding area who had gone to serve in the armed forces during World War II.  A smaller section had been added below for those who went to Korea, and then later, in Vietnam.  A roll of honor for most.  A roll of sacred memory for some.

As things go, cracks had formed in the concrete pavement upon which it stood with weeds spouting up.  Mortar had fallen in places from the brickwork.  It bothered me, so one sunny day off, I cleaned the concrete pavement of the weeds and patched cracks, re-tuckpointing the damaged brick mortar, and cleaning the glass case.

I didn’t notice that I was being noticed.

I didn’t realize I had opened a door for others to enter into needed conversation.

Over the following week or so, I was approached by an increasing number of Korean War vets, many from my church and several from the larger community.  Sharing memories, they held deeply, even shielding from their families, I was surprised to encounter woundedness in search of the grace of healing.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

This profoundly spiritual quest for the “holy grail” of healing mercy, is a quest to resolve our values having been compromised and our spirits injured.  It is holy work, that finds healing within the love and grace of God as we know God, and something God’s beloved servant-community must surely understand if we are to serve.

FOR INSTANCE

The prophet Haggai only spoke for about six months in the year, 520 BC, and as a lectionary reading it can easily escape notice, even as all the names are a challenge for our reader!  However, his words seem fitting on a Veterans Day weekend, the lectionary being truly fitting for the day.

The people have come home, and “the spirit of all the remnant of the people… came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month” [Haggai 1:15].  In the same breath, Haggai says: “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?  How does it look to you now?  Is it not in your sight as nothing? [Haggai 2:3].

As a people they had returned from the Babylonia exile.  Some very aged with dim memories of what had once been glory, but the rest children, grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren suffering from a sense of inter-generational trauma – starting over amid the grown-up ruins of the former glory that was Jerusalem and the Temple.

Nothing is never the same, when one returns from trauma, even if things look like we left them, for one is not the same.

In 2004, after the Battle of Fallujah, I was sent to Baghdad, Iraq to work with special forces after a long, intense deployment to prepare them to return home.  Helping them process what they had experienced, in the relatively safe spot marked only by random daytime rocket attacks and 2:00 a.m. mortar attacks every night, and an occasional suicide bombing at one of the gates.  There, I encountered conversations reminding me of those I had years before in Western Pennsylvania.

Guilt.

Shame.

Caught between a sense of having done what they were sent to do and what they had experienced.

And it wasn’t the diagnosis that everyone runs to stick on combat vets.  So much of what I encountered was something else.  It was a wounding of the spirit, not simply the mind, even if both are in play.

It was the violation of a moral code, evaluating one’s own behavior negatively, no longer living in a reliable, meaningful world, and no longer having the sense of being regarded as decent human being.

I was freshly reminded of this last week, when I was at a prayer breakfast over at the VA, and a Soldier read a lament he had written amid his in-patient treatment.  It started with a word, then another, then phrases, then sentences.  It flowed with pain in search of healing, words of guilt… especially of shame, of witnessing and of experiencing, this man who lost an entire leg, his career, and nearly his mind.

I have thought much about those who donned the uniform and went as the nation directed, to an unpopular war, only to be mocked, spat upon, and seen as less than human.

I have thought about a conversation with a SEAL preparing to return home, in 2004.  He had led a patrol that came upon a Marine patrol which had been ambushed, not having been able to stop it because as things go, his platoon was on an entirely different communications channel, then he dug out a body from under a HUMVEE only to have a helicopter pilot refuse to take the body of a dead Marine because they were only taking the living amid the intensity of the ongoing battle.  He was crumpled in a sense of shame and failure.

This leaves a need to see oneself as whole again, and again, there are hear the words of the prophet Haggai: “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?  How does it look to you now?  Is it not in your sight as nothing?” [Haggai 2:3]

Let’s be honest with ourselves, at the end of the day, “moral injury,” for that is what this is called, can be the sense of being haunted by a sense of betrayal, of things one has failed to do, of wrongful acts one has supported, of taboos one has violated, of harm one has witnessed or heard about, or, in the aftermath of violence, of one having handled human carnage.  It can just as readily be the experience of those who aren’t the one who was injured, but the caregivers or loved ones hearing the painful stories or imagining the experience.  So yes, it can be spread…. generation to generation, between husband and wife, parents and children, friends, church members, co-workers, neighbors.  In our scripture lesson, for instance, the generations who weren’t there to see Jerusalem destroyed heard the trauma of their parents and grandparents… and now their imaginations saw the awful confirmation.

Moral injury puts ethics up for grabs in impossible ways, typically resulting in profound sadness, grief and guilt.

Very often I find folks using all kinds of ways to cope and not all are helpful.  I saw this regularly when I was working in the VA’s substance abuse program more than a decade ago.  It wasn’t PTSD, although some also had that, it was different.  The man who was abandoned as a baby and had a lifetime feeling no worth.  The man who was a regular churchgoer and yet lost his wife to cancer and his son in a random shooting within the span of a few months.  I’ve seen it in sexual assault victims who were neglected or on the other extreme, sexually harassed by the very people who should have been their very support team.

In recent years, Rita Nakashima Brock, a Disciples of Christ minister and professor, has become the leading voice on identifying and treating moral injury.  To use her description, it is

“…the trauma of moral conscience, when harm cannot be amended and empathy yields only pain and self-condemnation.  Moral emotions, such as guilt, shame, remorse, and outrage at others, result in broken trust, poor health, social isolation, and, in extreme cases, suicide or violence.  Moral injury means the existing core moral foundations or faith of a person or group are unable to justify, make sense of, and integrate traumatic experiences into a reliable personal identity that enables relationships and human flourishing.  Like a missing limb, it is not a reversible injury, so survival is a process of learning to live with an experience that cannot be forgotten.  But how the experience is remembered is crucial.”

I have to say here, the path of needed grace may take an interesting journey; it may require us to hear a new end to the same story.

The soldier I spoke of is still amid that journey.

The SEAL whom I once cared for found a new ending when he could hear his courage described back to him in asking the helo pilot if he could be extracted since he was alive and then strapping the dead Marine to himself in a bearhug of literally embracing death.  Having felt utter failure, he finally heard the correct end to the story, one not stuck in his inability to prevented the death of a Marine, but the story of how he successfully got that dead Marine home… home to his loved ones.

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all this, this conversation that strikes at the spiritual life of people, and perhaps ourselves?

Today is a reminder, as Rita Nakashima Brock points out,  she the child of a mother who witnessed Nagasaki and father went ashore at D-Day: 

“The moral injury of veterans belongs to all of us.  Attending adequately to their recovery is a responsible way to welcome veterans’ home, with respect.  If we help carry the memories, we will be better people for the struggle and better able to understand what peace requires of us.”

She is right.

“…the moral house of peace must be built on a foundation of remembrance, remembrance not only of the victories, or the casualties and the tragedies of wars past and present (of whatever form).  We must attend also to the cost of war on its survivors, the price paid by (those) who cannot come home and take their own lives, or drink to oblivion, or work too hard and die too young, or spend their entire lives feeling unlovable and unloved because of what they carried home from war (or any other kind suffering).”

She is right, not just as to the compassionate care of those who have borne the spiritual cost of war, but of those in virtually every walk of life.  So, if we would rightly acknowledge the needs of our vets and their loved ones too, we would also hold that larger perspective in that moral injury isn’t exclusive to combat or even to just vets.

I think this is what Haggai is also pointing us to, a conversation as to where we go from here, being given a treasure gathered by God for the survivors that is something beyond silver and gold, and infinitely more rare and precious:  to be welcomed to the house of shalom, to experience the divine peace.

I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts.  The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts.” [Haggai 2:6-8]

This is really our “lane” so to speak, as followers of Christ, each of us called to be healers in this shared ministry of reconciliation that we call “church.”

The Biblical story is one in which God helps us find our footing in the ashes of suffering, and in Christ our Lord’s embrace – to experience a new ending that doesn’t erase the past of either abuse or abandonment, but instead gives us a future.  It is this quest that we “hold fast without wavering,” in the words of Paul.

So in this, may God help us to change.
To change ourselves and to change our world.
To know the need for it.
To deal with the pain of it.
To feel the joy of it.
To undertake the journey without understanding the destination.
To know what it is to abide in grace, to experience healing of one’s spirit.

Amen.

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Note:  I would encourage you to read more on this topic, such as “Moral Damage and Spiritual Repair in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” by A.A. Howspian.  Dated 01 March 2015, it can be read in full at: //www.equip.org/article/moral-damage-spiritual-repair-posttraumatic-stress-disorder/
In hope, a prayer of David…

Psalm 13 (New Revised Standard Version)

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

“Honoring the Saints”

blogphoto*Sermon preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 03 November 2019, for “All Saints Sunday.”

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GOSPEL OF LUKE 6:20-31 (New Revised Standard Version)

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

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INTRODUCTION

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to pass over your own misspellings, especially when typing?  You read it and it looks good!  Later, you find that you had misspelled a few words, left out a few words, or written a sentence that now really doesn’t make any sense!

OK, I will admit that there are at least one or two people for whom I know this probably isn’t true: Julie and Sylvia!

One technique for finding errors is to read things backwards.  It slows the reading speed, making one think about each word.  I would submit, it’s also one way to read the Gospel  – especially when reading what may be an overly familiar passage.  Take, for instance, what Jesus said in the today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke – if we reverse the sequence of its partial sentences.

  • Do to others as you would have them do to you.
  • If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again
  • Give to everyone who begs from you
  • From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
  • If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also
  • Pray for those who abuse you
  • Bless those who curse you
  • Do good to those who hate you
  • Love your enemies
  • Listen

WHY I BRING THIS UP

What do you notice that maybe you didn’t before, with it being read this way?  It’s a pretty challenging list, isn’t it?  Ten phrases are bookended with “Listen” and “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  “Speak, for your servant is listening,” said Samuel [I Samuel 3:10].  Listening is what equips us to “do to others as (we) would have them do to (us),” because only then do we understand the need – from the other’s point of view, not ours and own isn’t that the path of saints?

FOR INSTANCE

The early followers of Jesus spoke of saints in the lower case, not as a title, but as a way of being.  So if we are to take seriously the words of Paul, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” [Ephesians 1:15-16 then it’s you a saint, and you, and you, and you!  It is as H. A. Ironside has said: “We do not become saints by saintliness, but we should be characterized by saintliness because we are saints.”

I think of those like Louise, while approaching surgery two weeks ago.  Her chief complaint and worry was NOT about her health itself, but that her health placed an obstacle in her ability to physically serve the ministry of hospitality for which she remains well-known.  She loves this congregation, and as a doer, she’s having to content herself with a life of prayer for our church instead.

I think of Pam, whom we all still miss, and her thoughtfulness in making birthdays a big deal for everyone – that they might know they are known and loved, or Charlie whose tenacious love straddled the generations giving each a sure foundation of faith-guided ethics, or Sarah whose strong and thoughtful heart was a ministry to scores of young people around the world, or Ethel whose roots in this congregation spanned the decades.

I think of the various ways so many of you quietly serve and seek no acclaim – in ministries of meals, visits, cards, phone calls, and a myriad of other ways.  In all of it, you would not see yourselves as anyone special.

I also think of those who have raised their voices to seek justice for those for whom God is almost most concerned.  In the US, someone like Dr. William Barber, the Disciples of Christ pastor who has become a voice of conscience for our nation, in speaking up for the cause of the poor.  Or abroad, in  another voice with courage who spoke against the ills of his own society – defending the poor, the widow and the needy against a regime that sought to cloth itself in religiosity but was at its heart – evil.  Speaking out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture amid a growing war between left-wing and right-wing forces less than a month before his March 24, 1980 assassination in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero noted:  That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted, (is that which) put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense.”

It is not an easy path, this whole saint business.  It is, however, the path of the highest love, something I was thinking about when I noticed on a mantle at my sister’s house, were framed words of a prayer attributed to Romaro.  Being what Paul called us, “a priesthood of all believers,” I invite you to  hear his words:

It helps, now and then, to step back

And take the long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

It is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of

The magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,

Which is another way of saying

The kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

    knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything

And there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something

And to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

And opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,

But that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,

Ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

SO WHAT?

We give thanks to the Glory of God, for those workers we’ve been blessed to know among us whose labors are now complete,

In humility, let us claim for ourselves the words spoken by a saint indeed:

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.  This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.  It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, and opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.”

“But love your enemies,” said Jesus, “do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

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“Prayer Reflection, Archbishop Oscar Romero.  November 1979, accessed at:  http://www.rcsouthwark.co.uk/romero_prayer.html

“Faith Amid the Hard Battle”

blogphoto*Preached on 20 October 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Honestly, I could do a whole sermon series on just this one passage, there is so much packed in its sparse sentences.  I do think people may get the wrong idea of what Jesus is saying, as in just pray harder, when it’s actually about making our life more open to God.  I’d note that as Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, there is an increased directness as to what having a life (and lifestyle!) in Jesus meant for his followers.  The other reading for the day, Jeremiah 31:27-34, was what I originally intended to preach on, but instead I found myself preaching on Luke. I may go back later and pick up on Jeremiah, as it is a truly important message, especially for any coming out of a family “system” that is damaging, and the message God has for those of faith who struggle with generational dramas.    – Vinson

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Gospel of Luke 18:1-8 (New Revised Standard Version)

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  He said, “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?”

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INTRODUCTION

If there is one parable that’s always reminded me of one of my Mom’s traits of her faith life, it has always been today’s lesson from Luke… which speaks of prayer and a very, very persistent widow.  Not because Mom was widowed twice, but because the three of us boys and my sister the firstborn, in varying ways and to varying extent – we all gave Mom reason to worry for our safety, and often!

Like her catching my oldest brother before he stepped off into a deep Florida canal, as a two-year old or when he was 40 and near death, followed by the many weeks he was in a coma before he came back to us, though disabled.

Like my sister opening the car door and flying headlong out into a busy intersection as a 4-year old as Mom turned the corner and a few other adventures in her life, although she got the halo award among us four!

Or, like our middle brother who as a young teen he and a buddy found a stash of dynamite and set it off.

And yes, there are my own numerous brushes with trauma and too many to list potential life-ending encounters before and during my military service.

No small wonder then, that from 1950 until her death in 2017, every night Mom prayed for our safety.  It was her number one priority, for which we gave her ongoing cause, and I can reasonably assume she is doing them still, albeit more directly, in heaven!  They were no soft prayers; Mom was utterly tenacious, as we joked God being used to saying “Yes, ma’am” to Mom.  Like the proverbial widow, she was utterly unrelenting in her specific prayers – first and foremost, the protection of her children regardless of our age.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because danger is the very context for this Gospel reading from Luke, and we don’t have to guess the meaning as Jesus delivers a clear and unambiguous message to believers who find themselves amid the wear of tough challenges:

STAY IN PRAYER.

Don’t lose heart even though injustice will be encountered with systems themselves slanted against those who are nearest the heart of God – slanted against the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor, the least of these – for God will be faithful.

And as Jesus speaks of God’s faithfulness, he also delivers a searching “bottom line” question for us:  Will WE remain in that relationship of trust?  Will our faith prevail?

FOR INSTANCE

Luke, in writing this gospel in the years immediately following the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, was all too aware the Christian community was amidst painful divergence from the Jewish community, — and we know how tough family fractures can be – but  the bigger issue was Rome itself.  It saw the community centered in Christ as a threat to be extinguished, this rapidly expanding monotheistic faith not confined to a single ethnic group like the Jews, but now carrying into every tribe and nation an allegiance to the one God, a distinct faith lifestyle imbued with a Kingdom of God justice and egalitarian ethos that readily appealed to the most dis-empowered, for the same reason that the crowds had earlier followed Jesus.  Christianity contrasted sharply with and thus subtly threatened the official state religion of emperor worship, its pantheon of permissible gods, and a complex system that maintained a peace that made for good economics but under a blanket of brutal oppression.

It is the concept of oppression of which Jesus now speaks.  Life, as Jesus knows full well and says so in as many words in Luke, can get really rough.  Indeed, this very passage in Luke reminded me of the somewhat well-known quote that’s long been wrongly attributed to various ancient philosophers, but more recently to a Scot Presbyterian minister who published in an 1897 Christmas edition of a British weekly publication:  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  Regardless of its origins or age, the saying has truth; we only have to stop for a moment and consider any number of the hard battles among our fellowship.

Those of us who are enduring ongoing cancer treatments.

Those of us who pining for a surgery date to fix one joint or another.

Those of us who miraculously manage working around unending chronic back, hip, or knee pain.

Those of us who struggle with epilepsy, the anxiety it creates and steady stream of doctor visits.

Those of us with broken or damaged relationships, over which we may have no say, because some just go to the far land and leave us in hurt.

Those of us whose adult children have profound struggles of one kind or another, which pains us with brutal powerlessness.

Those of us whose various disease processes are of a duration of months to years for the remainder of our lives.

Those of us who have emotional or mental health struggles.

Those of us who grieve for loved ones lost to death, recent or long ago.

Those whom we have lifted up in prayer today from our circles of family, friends, neighbors and even strangers; and the realization we must admit – these are just those battles for body, mind, and/or spirit that we all KNOW of and about each other.

Those of us with struggles we aren’t even aware of, out of a sense of privacy or just going it alone.

I’ll be honest, what worries me the most is something I discovered two decades ago, when I was doing extensive anonymous surveying among the almost 5,000 sailors for whom I was their sole chaplain.  One of the questions I asked was about who they would turn to if they had a problem… family, friends, chain of command, mental health, chaplains or civilian clergy, and so on.  In that extensive “check all that apply” in no particular order kind of list, out of curiosity, I also included a box captioned “No one” just to cover all possible bases.  Depending upon the command, I was shocked to discover that each of the half dozen commands had 3% to 8% of the sailors mark that they would go to NO ONE.  So let’s not kid ourselves, even here among people of faith and those we cherish, odds are that some of us are enduring battles known to none but God.

Yet here is precisely where the Gospel meets us.  Not with some bandaid of an explanation, but a word of encouragement.  No matter how any of us came to experience suffering and why, Jesus introduces a widow, a sympathetic heroine, one whom the system seems clearly stacked against, a witness to oppressive forces – whether of body, mind or spirit.

You see, those to whom Luke speaks, have been praying and praying, asking that the Kingdom would come and come now – that his promises would come to pass, for what they have been experiencing, per the 17th chapter of Luke, is persecution, hardship, suffering, perhaps even a bit of lost faith.  They are feeling the pressure.  Their church is feeling the pressure.  They are getting to a place where they think something has got to give – God must act!

So as one commentator puts it, maybe we’ve beenasking the same question about our church, or about our life, or about the world in which we live.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could catch just a glimpse of God’s activity in it all?  Sometimes,” he notes, “it’s hard not to lose heart.  So Luke tells us about Jesus’ story where the point is made that, if a ruthless, insensitive and hardened judge will finally hear the persistent petitions of a widow, how much more can we believe and trust that God, who cares for us and has our best interest at heart, will hear the prayers of those who are willing to ‘pray always’? (and that) …it is through our persistence, our constant prayer, our ‘bothering’ God, that we open ourselves to receive the guidance and compassion God wants to give us in abundance.” 

SO WHAT?

So let’s be clear…, if we are to be faithful to the meaning of the Gospel of Luke’s words. We are certainly invited indeed to “bother” God, every bit as much as my Mom once did.  Be bold, like my Mom, in laying out what’s on your heart and mind, but remember God isn’t the unrighteous judge who needs to be worn down and only will act out of self-interest.

Rather, Jesus is reminding us to stay in continual prayer to change who we are, as his “chosen ones.”  By doing so, we answer Christ’s very question:  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  We, as believers, know that such faith is found in unexpected places and, significantly, among the imperfect imbued with humility.  It’s found among those admittedly uncertain of their own righteousness who are considered “outsiders”, “unloved”, “unclean”, in other words from our own society: simply – “others.”  It’s found among those who, through it all, have chosen to stay in the relationship of trust.  It’s found among those transformed into a community called “grace” empowered to be a force of compassion to one another.  In effect, it’s to be like the others of whom ~Luke~ writes:

The blind beggar later in this very chapter who recognizes Jesus for who he is and called out to him, or the woman with unending bleeding and thus socially isolated, who touches Jesus’ clothes in the crowd and is healed.

The Samaritan leper we talked about last week, whose gratitude turned him around to fall at the feet of Jesus in ongoing thanksgiving.

The centurion who recognizes in Jesus a presence of authority that can heal his slave, even from a distance.

The sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet and loves much.

Or, perhaps it is simply to be what is closest to the nature of being an authentic church… having friends like that of the paralytic who are willing – not simply to pray that all of us might remain open to the magic, mystery, and power, — but to cut through a roof to lower each of us, in our time of need, to the very embodiment of hope.

Amen.

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Citation:  “Bothering God,” by Dr. Randy L. Hyde.  Dated 2007, accessed on 17 October 2019 at: https://sermonwriter.com/sermons/luke-181-8-bothering-god-hyde/blogphoto

“Gratitude in the Borderlands”

*Sermblogphotoon preached on 13 October 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Honestly, I’d like to expand upon the whole “borderlands” aspect of this, and may well do so.  It really is a profound metaphor for where Jesus meets all of us in life-changing encounters…. and where the grace of God stands out most clearly.  It is the context always, for the gratitude that is what marks out the truly Christian life, in every circumstance.  It is this that I myself am pondering and will continue to do so, in my own life.  I invite you to do likewise. – Vinson

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Gospel of Luke 17:11-19 (New Revised Standard Version)

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.  As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.  Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”   Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

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INTRODUCTION

One of the things that warms any parent’s heart is when other people comment on the children’s positive traits.  Let’s face it, it isn’t easy being a parent.  A parent notices what isn’t going as well as we would hope, or where our child needs growth.  Sometimes, it’s just hard to have the big picture of success.  That’s why back when our children were little, Julie and I started noticing what was good in other folks’ children and telling the parents… who would often become emotional with relief and joy.  Parent to parent encouragement is a needed gift.

Let’s face it, in the daily grind it is sometimes hard to see that bigger picture of success, and parents can use the encouragement.  All of us can use that kind word of where we are being successful, to be honest, parents or not.

It was back in that timeframe that Julie and I started a daily practice of just spending about 15 minutes together.  Julie took the even-numbered days and I took the odd-numbered days!  It was our way of sharing ownership for initiating a conversation that would always start with gratitude.  Some of it might be for specific daily chores.  Some of it might be for those singular moments, like Julie going out of her way to pick up cards for me to send our Moms for an upcoming Mother’s Day or for their birthdays.  I suppose for some, it might be just laying out clothes that match, for those of us a bit colorblind or have no sense of style!  Then we’d check with the other as to anything that was missed, as to our expressing appreciation.  It just made us much more aware of all the small things that go into making a household run, raising kids, and being married.  Then we’d go over our calendars, so we both knew what was happening, before touching upon any need for a changed behavior.

Simple.  Uplifting.  Unifying.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Gratitude.

If the text from the Gospel offers a number of sermon possibilities, gratitude surely is at the heart of today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke.

How often do we really, deliberately consider it?  I mean REALLY, deeply, consider it?

I’m not talking about the courtesy thank yous we say when someone opens a door, but actually centering ourselves in the BEING a people of gratitude, living a life of noting and appreciating that which is good?

FOR INSTANCE

Having set his face toward Jerusalem, in the 9th chapter of Luke, where he will finally arrive in the 19th chapter, if we peruse those chapters that span between, we might notice that Jesus tended to frequent those borderlands between Samaria and Galilee.  I would suggest the “borderlands” is something of a metaphor for where the ministry of Jesus takes place in human life.

In today’s lesson, the borderlands are where Jesus encounters ten men begging for assistance, a mix of untouchables, a people whose shared suffering had become their tribe.  Not just any suffering, but socially isolating as much as physically painful, cut off as it were, from the land of the living, with a life that but awaited death.  The two types of lepresy both ended in death, one in 9-10 years and the other in maybe 20.

William Barclay describes the hideous progression of the worse form of this disease:  Eyebrows would fall out; the eyes become staring; the vocal chords become ulcerated, and the voice becomes hoarse, and the breath wheezes.  The hands and feet always ulcerate, and eventually one’s life would end in ulcerated growth, mental decay, coma and ultimately death. Or, one’s nerve trunks are affected, the muscles waste away, and the hands become like claws, with the progressive loss of fingers and toes, until in the end a whole hand or a whole foot may drop off.

​ So the cleansing of lepers, that earlier, in Luke 7:22, Jesus singled out, saying: “Go and tell John… the lepers are cleansed,” was no accidental sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.  Leprosy made them rejected by both Jews and Samaritans alike.  They were alive and yet dead to all who knew them.

In this narrative, at least one is a Samaritan, and reading between the lines it seems that the other nine were likely Jewish.  Together, they address Jesus as “master,” a term which in Luke is only used by the disciples to address Jesus, and immediately he sends them to show themselves to the priests to confirm their healing.  They hadn’t looked at their own skin… they just ran… and amid their running, they are healed.

It’s a three-part telling, that Luke gives us:

There is the healing itself.

There is the turning back and praising God.

There is the prostrating himself and giving thanksgiving at the feet of Jesus.

This three-step is echoed by the words of Jesus:

“Were there not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?”

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Then, there is Jesus’ response to the Samaritan at his feet: “…your faith has made you well,” literally “saved you.”

Jesus told them to show themselves to the priests, but one turns back, at first glance seemingly disobeying Jesus’s direction – as he instead gives thanks.  He knows who the true high priest of God is, as he glorifies God and throws himself at the feet of Jesus, giving thanks.  It is no ordinary word of thanks he employs and no language accident of the ever-thorough Luke, as the former leper glorifies God in thanksgiving.  Luke uses the same verb Jesus would later when he gave “thanks” God for the bread and the cup, and blessed them, at the Last Supper.

It’s only then that Luke tells us that the one who turned back in this borderland, lifting his hands and falling at the feet of Jesus, is a Samaritan.

So we see through this now-healed man, God is at work whenever Jesus notices… and heals hurts… and heals brokenness… in those borderlands where lives otherwise go unnoticed.

I would suggest there is something in this gospel text for us to understand about those who live in the borderlands existing amid n the many kinds of life in the margins  in our communities and in the world.  There is also something we may want to also consider:  those parts of ourselves hidden in the borderlands, the private suffering we may least want to be seen and most need to be touched.  You see, Jesus isn’t put off by journeys into the borderlands of life, but readily meets the needs of sufferers in such places, sufferers in the deepest part of ourselves.

The response of the former leper is no simple one-off thank you, but the active tense of praising… literally staying in a life glorifying God, demonstrating how thanking Jesus IS to live a life that glorifies God.

I would suggest that Glory given to God may come easier to those who realize they’ve received the most from Jesus, the ones he encounters in the borderlands, the ones who’ve been through a lot and discovered the loyal love of God.  I think of the kind of gratitude I see in many who gather at The Welcome Table, for instance.  As Jesus noted when a suffering woman anointed his feet [Luke 7:47], the one who has been given much also loves greatly.

Love that springs from such gratitude IS the essence of faith.

Luke makes clear that Jesus’ life is framed by people glorifying God.  There are the shepherds at his birth [Luke 2:20].  There is the centurion at the foot of his cross [Luke 23:47].  Responding to the life we are given in Jesus is to praise and glorify God.

SO WHAT?

In such a spirit Paul writes, in I Thessalonians 5:18: “in everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

A life of thanks is hard to miss ’s hard to miss, as Julie and I discovered so long ago after our kids had spied on us!  One day our then two-year old son, I expect prompted by his big sister, came and asked if they could do what Julie and I had been doing… if they could join us.  Thus began our Sunday morning before breakfast time of thanks – spending those precious 10 minutes or so singling out something about of what had been done, of every other member of the family, and taking turns at it.  Our children began to express such words of appreciation to others, unbeknownst to us, as adults often came up to us to tell us how polite and such our kids were – not often seeing such a spirit of appreciation among many children… or other adults.

Our kids humbled us, in what for them became a natural way of life, giving thanks.

The soul-searching question for us then this morning, is such a life of gratitude evident in us, if we are honest with ourselves?  In our words to God and one another, in thanksgiving for the life we have in Jesus Christ?  In our acts of service and in our giving?

Have we let it the spirit of gratitude grow cold, or is it like that of the healed leper?

Have we taken it for granted, or praise God without ceasing for His care of us?  Certainly, is that part of our life with the people around us?

With humility, I can see I still have plenty of room to grow.  How about you?

Amen.

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Source on leprosy:  William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: Matthew.  Westminster Press, 1:295.