Seeds of Empathy, Hearts of Compassion

Presentation3Mark 4:26-34 New Revised Standard Version

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”  He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”  With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

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SERMON OF 17 JUNE 2018

INTRODUCTION

When I hear the words of Mark speaking of the mustard seed, I find myself filled with the imagery of 2003, in East Timor.  My battalion was rebuilding a school, in the years following the attempted destruction of the Christian population.  The ground around it was absolutely barren.  Not even a weed, with a mixture of small rocks and dirt making up the landscape.  Every tree that once stood, had been pulled down and burned during the pillaging.

What struck me was how the surviving locals had now planted the yard with sticks.

Actually, tree limbs.

Holes of some depth had been dug into the rocky soil, with small limbs cut from local trees stuck into the earth.  Each stood four feet high, ready to take root and transform the area into a covering of cooling branches in the hot climate.

Then and now, the scene struck me as defiant hope, grounded in a faith that had not been annihilated.

More than this, the thought of how the kingdom of God, appearing small and lifeless… bursts forth, life from death.

Jesus spoke of the tiny mustard seed to make a point about appearances belying the potential that God has placed within, and that if we would see limitations, God sees clearly otherwise, for as God once said to Samuel, “…the Lord does not see as mortals see…”

It isn’t just a cute story about how such a small seed can give rise to an expansive  tree-like shrub up to 12 feet tall, or how it can give home to the birds of the air – which those who were Jewish would have picked up on as a symbol of the gathering in of all peoples.

Here is a word spoken to a group of Christians pressed against, seeking to be good citizens, while struggling with a sense of powerlessness in challenging the immoral elements of the Roman state.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

A few weeks ago I had notions of how I would approach today… Father’s Day.  A time we think of our earthly Dads and how some of us are truly blessed; maybe others not so.  Yet, I have found myself in a markedly different place, contemplating as to how can we truly honor our Father in Heaven if we allow or participate in the diminishment of His children on Earth?  Wondering how can Christians plant the hope for a new world in the face of the ongoing pain and evil evident in the present age?

FOR INSTANCE

In my reading early last week, I came across something by Rabbi Marc Aaron Kline, that continues to resonate with me.  Wrote the rabbi some years ago:

The purpose of scripture is to grow our empathy for each other, reminding us to love the stranger and know his heart.  Each of us has been the stranger at some point in our lives….  We have the power to turn one’s life into heaven or hell as we either embrace or cast off others from our society.  There are things over which we have no control: the forces of nature or the behaviors others impose upon us.  But there are catastrophes over which we have control because we have created them.

While he was addressing an altogether different matter, his words are prophetic to our present day, as we are indeed looking at a catastrophe in our present time, one not of nature, but one in part created by our very nation upon our southern border by our treatment of children and families seeking asylum.  It’s a disaster that has been coming over the past few years, but now has morphed into the deliberate ripping children from their parents arms, separating children from parents and now even from siblings, placing thousands of children as young as four months away from their families.  As the American Academy of Pediatrics has put it after inspecting facilities this past week,

These children are thrust into detention centers often without an advocate or an attorney and possibly even without the presence of any adult who can speak their language.  We want you to imagine for a moment what this might be like for a child: to flee the place you have called your home because it is not safe to stay and then embark on a dangerous journey to an unknown destination, only to be ripped apart from your sole sense of security with no understanding of what just happened to you or if you will ever see your family again.  And that the only thing you have done to deserve this, is to do what children do: stay close to the adults in their lives for security.

We dare not look away.

It is how we are celebrating Father’s Day as a nation this year.

On the very day when we take up an offering meant to shelter the least of these – here and abroad — in the case of disaster, we behold this disaster and our nation’s role in it.

It is hard for me to shake the language used.  Children being spoken of as a living “deterrence” in what reminds me of the “human shield” kind of language used in warfare by those we have roundly condemned as inhumane.  Yet here we are, with language that makes it self-evident their lives are not seen as having intrinsic God-given value, with spirits deserving of special protection.

Confronted as to the cruelties of recent policy, this past week Romans 13 has been cited as a justification for forcibly removing children from parents, the very same passage once used by slaveowners to rationalize slavery.  Well folks, Romans 13 does not say “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” as was said.  It actually read “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.”  Let’s be clear, nothing is said about the laws themselves, for civil disobedience to immoral laws has a long Biblical tradition.  Moses would not have lived, had not Jewish midwives violated the Egyptian law that decried the death of male newborns.  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego violated the law by refusing to worship King Nebuchadnezzar, and then stunned him by not being burned in that Babylonian furnace.  Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den for praying to God, and not the king as the law demanded.  When the Sanhedrin banned preaching in the name of Jesus, the apostles went right on preaching.

The biblical tradition of calling government to accountability and challenging it for failing to be fair, equitable, and merciful in its treatment of the weak is found throughout the prophetic tradition in the Bible.  It is OUR Biblical heritage, and was even enshrined within the words of our nation’s Declaration of Independence.

So when Paul, who had not yet been to Rome, framed his letter to a mixed audience which included Jews that had just been allowed to return to Rome after a five year absence under Nero, and possible eavesdropping Roman authorities – he echoed Jesus’ admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” and “Bless those who persecute you.”  Paul was saying to the effect, be a good citizen as much as you are able, but remember that you won’t be able to offer sacrifices to the emperor and if that’s the law then you’re just going to break the law and go to jail.  Paul is not saying to leave unjust laws unchallenged – far from it.  Had the same official who cherrypicked a single verse and mangled it, read further, he would have come to these words of Romans 13:8-10:  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘you shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder, you shall not steal; you shall not covet’, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (NRSV)  To this, yesterday our General Minister and President, Terri Hord Owens added:  “When we use the Bible to justify policies that violate God’s law of love, we are in violation of God’s commandment to love, and we are participating with unjust systems.  When we start with love, we will understand that when laws dehumanize and discriminate, we are faithful in opposing such laws, and we are faithful in using our voice, our vote to call and vote for LOVE.  When we start with love, there is no universe in which snatching the children of those seeking asylum in our country can be justified.”

This why Rabbi Kline puts his finger on it so well, writing:

We must free the Bible from the narrowness imposed on it.  Religion should be the force that spreads love and goodness through the world.  We owe it to our children and to their children: faith needs to build relationships, bring hearts into concert, open souls to each other’s love and fulfill the prophets’ visions of a world redeemed…  (continuing), Agape love is not partial as to how it applies; it demands that each of us love and embrace each other as a child of the very same Source of Creation.

So regardless of where we each stand on what immigration policies should be, and reasonable discussion on policy is surely a must, we dare not mistreat the stranger and must be united in our compassion toward those who have risked so much, even their lives, to cross our borders.  We dare not stay silent as children are literally being held hostage.  We cannot avoid the higher law of Biblical commandments that the people of God treat aliens in their midst with radical hospitality, opportunity, and charity, — of engaging our empathy to ask the deeper questions as to the plight these people have faced that led them to our land.

As one Methodist minister has written,

How bad must their existence be that they are trying to come to a country that is calling them vile names, accusing them of vile acts, building a wall to keep them out, uttering threats against them, and now claiming Scripture compels them to do so?!

(So) even if we refuse to let them join our society—we should honor parents who are trying to save their children and themselves from the suffering they are experiencing and will experience in the future.

He asks us to contemplate:

Is there not “a way to uphold the law and grant dignity at the same time?  Do immigrants not deserve our utmost respect for doing what we hope we would have the courage to do were we to find ourselves in their situation?  And do not children deserve our compassion as the law is being administered—common sense compassion that looks different than hollowed out WalMarts and tent cities on military bases as prisons/orphanages?

SO WHAT?

So what do we do with this, especially in an age when divisiveness tends to shout over contemplation and discussion, and things so quickly are seen through the binary lens of politics?

We dig deeper into the Word, remembering its purpose:  I say again,  “…scripture is to grow our empathy for each other.”

We reject those ways we would demonize and dehumanize immigrants and immigrant families, or each other for that matter.

We lift up the sanctity of families—all families.

We model a commitment to both uphold laws that are just, challenge laws that are unjust, and above all – ACT… ACT!   in compassion for those whose emotional and physical health and quality of life is under severe threat.

It is easy to think one’s voice will not be heard.

It is small.  It has not the numbers.  Those who control the levers of power may well seek to denigrate and diminish.

And yet there is the mustard seed:  Small, then mighty in a single season of its growth.  We must all seek to make this season of national challenge one of moral growth and compassion!

Amen!

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HOW CAN YOU HELP?

Elected officials.  We all have them.  Call.  Write.  Email.  Visit. 

Make your voice heard.  

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).  German pastor and theologian, active in the German resistance against Hitler. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, and executed by the Nazis at FlossenbŸrg concentration camp, just before the end of the war.
Pastor’s Notes, used in preparation:  Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence at Southern Methodist University, By Dr. O. Wesley Allen, Jr., “Jeff Sessions and Father’s Day Sermons,” 14 June 2018.  Accessed at:  http://blog.smu.edu/pcpe/jeff-sessions-and-fathers-day-sermons/?ref=1153, on 15 June 2018.  Child’s World America, “Petition from Mental Health Professionals: Stop Border Separation of Children from Parents!,” April 2018.  Accessed at:  https://childsworldamerica.org/stop-border-separation/stop-border-separation-text-preview/, on 16 June 2018.  Langham Partnership, “A Commentary by John Stott, Romans 13: The Authority of the State,”  12 June 2016.  Accessed at https://us.langham.org/bible_studies/12-june-2016/ on 15 June 2018.  United Methodist Insight, “A Rabbi Interprets the Bible on Homosexuality,” unknown date.  Accessed at: https://um-insight.net/perspectives/reading-the-bible, on 11 June 2018.

Where Faith Stops

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*Sermon of Sunday, June 10, 2018. Scripture is ageless, speaking to every age, although it is still how the prophetic word can at times speak powerfully to a particular time in which we as “church” are called to serve and to witness as a community.  Sometimes it will “ouch” when its inescapable word calls us to wrestle with its relevance, but such stretching and accountability prospers our walk. -Vinson

I Samuel 8:4-20 & 11:14-15 New Revised Standard Version

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.

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INTRODUCTION

As I read from First Samuel, I found myself pulling off the bookshelf a book that I first read in seminary.  Dense reading, yet it made such an impression that I keep the now yellow-paged book still, to remind me as I look at the intersections of Christ and the culture in which we live.

In this post-World War II book, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr sketched out a Likert scale of Christianity, as evidenced in scripture and in church history over the centuries.  On one end, it describes those who see themselves needing to live completely apart and separate from society — and on the other — those for whom there is no difference between them and society.  Neibuhr doesn’t tell the reader where one should stand, but invites us to wrestle with why we have chosen a particular spot upon which to erect the cross of Jesus Christ in the life of our community.

Toward the end of the book, Neibuhr clearly denotes the humility we must surely share in, [page 235], writing that

“we have not found and shall not find – until Christ comes again – a Christian in history whose faith so ruled his life that every thought was brought into subjection to it and every moment and place was for him in the Kingdom of God.  Each one has encountered the mountain he could not move, the demon he could not exorcise….  Sometimes the faith in His goodness and power stops short at the sight of evil-doers…”

and those who run so rampant in our society: self aggrandizing, sitting in judgment, and absolutely certain that they have a patent on what is right….. for everyone ELSE…

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Every day, we are bombarded by news and events that can be described at best as unsettling.  More and more, it appears that we, as a society, as a planet, are edging toward our own “Samuel moment.”

FOR INSTANCE

Samuel sees that Israel is at a crossroads.  Now in his later years, the elders of Israel have gathered around him saying: “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for- us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”

I don’t think for a minute that the issue was really about Samuel’s sons, even though they, like the sons of Eli, had veered away from honoring God in their behavior.  That was just a cover, for their desire to be like the other nations.  As the conversation progresses, this becomes more clear as they refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, saying:  ”…we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”  God was not in the picture.

Samuel takes it a bit personally, but God’s sees it isn’t about Samuel, saying: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.  Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.”

God sees the heart of the problem.  In the words of Neibuhr, and please hear them clearly:  “Wherever faith stops, there decision in faith stops, as well as reasoning in faith; there faith ends and reasoning in unbelief begins.”

The words that were later written in Proverbs 3:3-6, are nowhere in their perspective,  “Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.  So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

Instead, they choose to lean on their own insight.

Instead of living differently, the people wanted to blend in, and to cease living prophetically.

God’s response when Samuel approaches God with their request is to correctly identify this as a rejection of God.  if the people were to persist and pursue this course of action the consequences would not be happy ones:

[An earthly king] will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.

He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.

He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.

He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you.

But, there is something in people – a sense of vanity, perhaps? — that they will choose their own oppression, in their search of material gain and presumed access to power.  The Bible and recorded history are replete with examples of how poorly that works out.  Our own age is witness to such.

God knows this, but the people will not hear.

Instead, they enthrone a king.

Not THE king, the God of Israel.  No, a king of their own making.  What the elders had done was to enmesh themselves in what the world around them was up to and they began to believe that there were better alternatives than what God had offered them in how they were to live and behave.

The temptation for us in hearing this archaic story of Samuel, may be to simply say “so what?”  Yet at the heart of this confrontation – this demand for a king – is a lesson for the church in our own age.

During a two-year span when I was sorting out my direction in life, having quit my first profession, I flew down to spend time with my mother’s family in Florida.  One of my uncles handed me a copy of a book he much admired and said it would inspire me.  I read the first chapter and that was as far as my stomach could tolerate.

Entitled “Looking Out for Number 1” it embodied the philosophical perspective of the influential atheist Ayn Rand, whose philosophy has been embraced by many who claim the name of Christ.  Its pages directly conflicted with my faith, placing the individual’s needs and wants above other considerations.  At its core, it is a book on how to be selfish.

In a small way, looking back, it was one of numerous moments that eventually would lead me into the ministry, as I rejected such a perspective.

Little did I know that such thinking, was rapidly taking root in the United States, with the self at the center and morality tossed aside in search of materialistic gain.  God twisted into a contemporary golden calf, in the perversion of scripture that is now referred to as “The Prosperity Gospel.”

No small wonder that we now have a society where road rage is all-too-common and the reality of people fighting at Black Friday sales.

Folks demanding to exert their rights to the exclusion of others and the increasing disappearance of any semblance of respect; blaming others for things which once would simply have been deemed sad accidents.

Political discourse, or at least what passes for it now, dominated by vitriol and debasement of individuals.

Personal happiness and success associated only with what one owns.

Reliance on self-esteem, self-image and self-love to define us.  Our personal story the most important story and others are simply there as stepping stones or obstacles to one’s own achievement.

This is even an issue for some in the overemphasis of the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus, to the point where it looks at life through the lens of what meets one’s own needs – not the needs of others, and perhaps pause in the words of the twelfth chapter of Romans, wherein Paul writes:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.  For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”

SO WHAT?

So how do we deal with all these pressures, growing in our society?  Perhaps even growing within ourselves?

To live in the world and yet somehow not find ourselves at the feet of the golden calf?

To see clearly that tension which Niebuhr laid bare…. holding up a mirror in which to see ourselves for where we are, who we are, whether Christ can be seen in that reflection – creating community?

We start with such honesty, with ourselves, with God.  Every day.

For if we are to live so that Jesus can be seen through us, then we will treat seriously the words of scripture and hear prophets both within and yes – beyond what we might see as the Christian community – critiquing the spirit of our age and the kings we enthrone – be they a Saul or be they ourselves.  Then we shall come to hear more fully, the word of Jesus:

“Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Amen.

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Pastor’s Note:  If you are interested in wading into H. Richard Niebubr’s Christ and Culture, which was authored in 1951, it is still in print.  As an aside, many are much more familiar with the prayer written by his brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, a fellow theologian in 1943 for a church service in a New England village, eventually finding a wider circulation among deployed servicemen.  The brothers Niebuhr devoted their lives to the causes of social justice, racial equality, and religious freedom amid a world spiraling into and out of economic depression and war.  This prayer, with its appeal for grace, courage, and wisdom soon became famous the world over, with the first portion being adopted as the official prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Amen.

 

Finding One’s Voice

2480743_orig - Copy*Sermon of Sunday, June 3, 2018. Something I’ve been wrestling with, what it means to speak as Christians, in an age when our witness has been tarnished and our society needs our voice.  With the perspective that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work [II Timothy 3:16-17]  -Vinson

I Samuel 3:1-10 (added 11-18) New Revised Standard Version

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;  the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.  Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.  The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.  Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.  Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.  On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.  Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”  Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.  But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.”  Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”  So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

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INTRODUCTION

The year after East Timor was recognized as an independent nation, my Marine battalion deployed there.  UN troops had previously pushed extremists back across the border and recovery had begun.  Our convoy moved through what had been once a lush land.  We split up.  The other group headed for the mountains to set up medical and dental care, while mine headed to a distant village to reconstruct a school.  We passed through village after village with nothing but foundations showing, as everything had been burned.  Especially the churches.  Mass graves were everywhere… in front of churches, homes, small businesses, or just beside the road.  In the days that followed, I noticed really large families—or what looked like large families because so many children had been orphaned.  Surviving adult relatives took in nieces, nephews, and young cousins.  Elderly people were scarce because they had not been able to run fast enough.  Those who appeared old weren’t.  The trauma had aged them decades.  A quarter of the young nation’s population were dead.

Maybe it was because of the sheer scale of horror, but something that has stuck with me is not only how people and nations will inflict suffering upon others, but that they are just as capable of standing by while it’s happening, in spite of personal aversion.

When we turn to the word of the Lord, the calling of Samuel, in the verses that immediately follow, is painful.  Thrust immediately into crisis, we hear these words:  “the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.   On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.   For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,] and he did not restrain them…”  the backstory of Eli’s sons can be found in the preceding chapters.  Samuel hears this, and that unsettling word, he ”lay there until morning.”  I would imagine he was a bit excited that the Lord was seeking him out, only to have this word shared with him about the man who had taken him in.  Who would be able to go back to sleep?

Eli comes across as a nice man, but one who just stood by when bad things were going down.  But I have yet to find a verse in the Bible that says we are set aside to be nice, but many as to our call to be kind – for kindness is linked to justice.  Nice is saying thoughts and prayers while scurrying along the other side of the road while a beaten man lies in a ditch.  Kind is tending the man’s wounds and getting him help.  That is what Jesus lifted up.  So we hear God saying to young Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.  On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

 Did you hear it?

“For the iniquity that he knew…. and (how) he did not restrain them.”  How he was aware of what was happening, and yet passive in the face of it.

This is just too much for God.  It is not how life is to be organized, certainly not by the religious folk and institution – represented by priests like Eli, who had grown up in it all, but forgotten what it really was about.

 FOR INSTANCE

This got me to thinking of the renowned Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel.  I looked up a speech he gave before our Congress almost twenty years ago.  He asked them:

“What is indifference?

Etymologically, the word means “no difference.”  A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.

What are its courses and inescapable consequences?  Is it a philosophy?  Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable?  Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue?  Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one’s sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?”

Of course,

he adds,

indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive.  It is so much easier to look away from victims.  It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes.  It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair.  Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence.  And, therefore, their lives are meaningless.  Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest.

Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction….

In a way, says Wiesel,

to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman.  Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred.  Anger can at times be creative.  One writes a great poem, a great symphony.  One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses.  But indifference is never creative.  Even hatred at times may elicit a response.  You fight it.  You denounce it.  You disarm it.

Indifference elicits no response.  Indifference is not a response.

Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end.  And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten…   in denying their humanity, we betray our own.

“Indifference, then,” says Weisel, “is not only a sin, it is a punishment.”

Eli had his suspicions as to what the Lord imparted to Samuel in the night.  In the morning, it is said that “Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.”  Really, who wants to share bad news?  The relationship becomes so important sometimes, it can made into a barrier through which truth is not allowed to pass.  But, Eli is direct and to the point.  His suspicion is confirmed, the secret is out. Samuel shared what Eli had already been told.

It’s interesting to me that Eli’s response is simply: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

No push back, but neither is there a willingness, in spite of the coming punishment, to go ahead and just do the right thing.  Weisel is right, indifference “is not only a sin, it is a punishment,” one which Eli will live out, rather than change.  It might not have swayed the Lord’s mind, but Eli doesn’t bother to try- doing nothing – out of his misplaced loyalty.  There is a lostness in him.

Why does this dusty Biblical history matter, we might ask?  Especially now, three millennia later, in a different culture and a nation?  I discovered the answer for myself when I was ten, when my Mom explained to me the difference between sins of commission and the sins of omission.  Complicated words that she made plain to me.  One is the willful act of sin.  The other is just standing by and letting sin happen.  Mom made it clear, the truth would be revealed and one had best not to to be on the wrong side of truth!

At the time, things were a bit crazy in that small North Carolina town and Mom was trying to unpack for me what Dad was addressing from the pulpit, as he condemned the Klan.  Mom, who in her sixties would became a federal women’s prison chaplain, made it clear to me that to stay silent amid the continued mistreatment of blacks during the push for desegregation was to be guilty of the sin of omission.  But folks didn’t want to hear it.

Well, segregation is gone, but we still have problems.  These days, some seem liberated to be more hateful than ever, a spike in behavior that studies show has increased over the past two years.  There is a such a fearfulness of people of color, and we know that fear is the opposite of love, I John 4:18 tells us that, so we know it is a spirit not of God that is at work.  Folks are getting fed up enough to protest them, and shine the bright light of truth on things, and yet so many will not see.

We look to the southwest.  Families being separated at the border, children sent to shelters that are quickly filling up and soon will be out of capacity, the federal agency in charge of this mess granting itself permission to destroy files containing the whereabouts of children, those who’ve died in custody, and even those who have been sexually assaulted.  Funding for legal representation has now cut off, so kids who speak little or no English are supposed to represent themselves – their parents nowhere in sight.  Concerns that this vulnerable population may find itself be exploited are growing.

As the author John Pavlovitz wrote this past week:  “The fact that (our) children were born here, doesn’t endow them with greater worth or deeper humanity than children who weren’t.  It doesn’t make them more deserving of defense or protection or advocacy.  It doesn’t make their fear more valid or their wounds more grievous.  It doesn’t make their needs more pressing or their disappearance more outrageous.  Or at least it shouldn’t.”

This growing form of nationalism “is a terrible disease, because of the way it allows those afflicted to compartmentalize people into (our) own and someone else’s.  It is a quickly metastasizing cancer of empathy that destroys (our) ability to care for humanity beyond what (we) believe is (our) responsibility: those close and known.”  As Pavlovitz adds, “I feel the need to remind us all—that we who claim Christianity pin our hopes to a dark-skinned, refugee, bastard child, whose birth came in the wake of desperate escape from unthinkable violence.  His life began fleeing political tyranny and seeking sanctuary from strangers.  Our Christian tradition is one of welcoming the foreigner, of taking in the weary traveler, of defending the orphan; one where every person is equally and fully made in the image of God.

I think this is why Russ Douthat, in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, argues that our problem isn’t too much religion; nor intolerant secularism – but that whether conservative or liberal, political or pop cultural, traditionally religious or fashionably “spiritual” – Christianity’s place in American life has been increasingly co-opted.  Not by atheism, but by heresy.  Debased versions of Christian faith that strokes egos, indulges follies, and encourages the worst impulses.

No wonder Douthat wrote just a couple days ago, in an editorial in the New York Times, of the “apocalypse” now rolling across both the religious and political landscapes, with private sins becoming public – as another denomination’s leader was fired for maltreatment of a sexual assault victim and a governor resigned for sexual misconduct and other misdeeds.  Scandal upon scandal… even as sins become public, slow rolling across the news without an end in sight, we risk becoming numb.  Maybe that was part of Eli’s problem, he just got numb, going through the motions of religion without the introspection and change it beckons.  So while as Douthat notes, we are perhaps a long way from any final judgment, there has been “a kind of apocalypse – not (yet) in the ‘world historical calamity’ sense of the word, but in the original Greek meaning: an unveiling, an uncovering, an exposure of truths that had heretofore been hidden.”

SO WHAT?

What are we to make of all of this?

“If our faith is to ring at all true in these days,” says Pavlovitz, “we need to be the people who have a greater capacity for both love and outrage.”

So I think the question posed to each of us and Christ’s church, amid this age of revelation is simply this:  If we know something troubling and even terrible about our leaders, our institutions, and our society – what will we do with this knowledge?

Will we find our voice?  Will we be prophetic… in word… in deed?

Amen.

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PASTOR’S NOTES:  Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Russ Duthat, Free Press, 2012; Elie Wiesel, “The Perils of Indifference,” delivered before Congress on 12 April 1999.  Accessed on 30 May 2018, at http://americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ewieselperilsofindifference.html; John Pavlovitzo, “Stuff That Needs to be Said:  America, Your Children Aren’t Special,” 28 May 2018.  Accessed 27 May 2018 at https://johnpavlovitz.com/2018/05/28/america-your-children-arent-special/.; Russ Douthat, “The Baptist Apocalypse,” 30 May 2018.  Accessed 02 Jun 2018 at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/opinion/paige-patterson-southern-baptist-convention.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fross-douthat&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection.

God, in the Existential Crisis: A Memorial Day Sermon

Presentation1*Sermon of Sunday, May 27, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the second Sunday in Pentecost, a Memorial Day weekend.  This photo above was taken of the late Rev. E. Tipton Carroll, Sr., when he was burying soldiers following the Battle of Munda in 1943, in the New Solomons.  “Tip” was an amazing minister of the Gospel, trusted friend and mentor.  He was integral to the path that led me into the ministry.  I have quoted a huge part of his letter, but while I have had my own experiences, his insights just “speak.” -Vinson

Gospel of John 3:1-17 (New Revised Standard Version)

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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INTRODUCTION

Memorial Day.

It isn’t on the church year calendar and yet how do we not address this day which has an element of dissonance?  A time to relax and enjoy treasured relationships, and yet also a day of remembering deceased family members and friends who gave the last measure of devotion in military service to us and to our nation.

Each of us comes to it with our own life experiences.

I know for me, the day is a fresh reminder that I am no longer conducting memorial services for service members who died on active duty, and it’s Veterans Day that is set aside to honor those who did not die on active duty, truth is my mind still tends to bring to my remembrance the veterans whose graveside military honors I provided over the years, especially the three chaplains I served alongside: all of whom I buried in 2015, with two of their lives cut short – one who had been medically retired due to combat-related exposure to nerve gas and the other a suspected suicide.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because while it is perhaps routine to think of tomorrow as a national holiday, as those who seek God, I am going to suggest the day may have something powerful to teach us about the meaningfulness of each of our lives with the very presence of God at the center of our existence.

FOR INSTANCE

To get at this, let me tell you about a friend of my parents I got to know after my Dad died when I was in college.  In his mid seventies, the barrel-chested son of Kentucky mountain coal country, Tip Carroll had finally fully retired a few years before from active ministry.  In my early twenties, I wasn’t prepared for someone fifty years my senior to so well understand me… as he became my confidant… always knowing the right questions to ask or sage counsel to quietly offer.  I noticed that in everything there was in him an unusual peace.

When I wondered how he came to be this way, we ended up talking about his experiences as an Army chaplain during the Pacific Campaign.  At 40 years of age, he left his congregation to serve for more than three years in the extraordinarily strenuous life of a combat chaplain.  Leaving the comfort of home, he took up the care of young men amid the carnage of war, even as he began a very personal search: – the desire to understand the true nature of people – whether or not we are “good or evil”… whether or not we are truly created in the image of God – by experiencing with his men their reactions and responses in battle.

Back about eight years ago, I ran into one of Tip’s sons at a General Assembly back.  Himself an Army chaplain who had served in combat during Vietnam, Tip Jr was gracious enough to send me some copies of some of his dad’s wartime letters.  So, on this Memorial Day, I’d like to read you a portion of what was a much longer letter, written by Tip to a minister friend in late 1943:

As you supposed, a fellow does do a lot of thinking and rethinking of his beliefs and convictions during combat experience.  I am no exception.

There has been little or no change in my fundamental beliefs and attitude.  I have had confirmed some things I believe.  One is that man is fundamentally good and unselfish.

During combat I have seen, time and again, men completely forget self and repeatedly risk their lives to aid a comrade.  These actions were not due to a sense of heroism, they sprang from a fundamental urge that men are mutually dependent upon each other and actually are each other’s keepers.  The last drop of water and morsel of food, with no more in sight for hours or perhaps days, were freely given to some fellow soldier who needed them.  Men with starved expression refused food when offered by another soldier because they knew the man was as hungry as they.  There was enough for one, but not for two.  One chose possible death that the other might survive.  The other chose possible death that he might share with another.

When men are stripped of all social props and are on their own, to live or die on their own, with death behind every tree, every jungle entanglement; when lying helpless while machine gun bullets graze their backs; when mortar artillery shells blow the occupants of the adjoining hole into bits; when bombs whine down at an accelerated speed and number, hitting within a short distance; when little white regularly spaced puffs of dust are headed straight at a fellow lying prostrate on the ground as a plane zooms past strafing; men are fundamentally religious not because they are afraid to die.

They have walked into the face of death several times, knowing that they probably would come back alive.

They are religious because there are none of the social acts and mores to separate them from God.  [emphasis mine]

They are face to face with God and they know it.  [emphasis mine]

They rely upon God absolutely because the death dealing weapons in their hands are useless.  They realize how weak and useless they are, notwithstanding the might and power of physical force at their disposal.

There are moments in their lives when they realize they are undone unless there is a God who cares for the individual.

There isn’t time to stop and reason about which theology of God is best, which one satisfies the intellect, which one is most logical.

There isn’t time to turn over slowly and deliberately each hindrance involved in accepting God as real and present.

Seconds are sometimes all there are.  But in those seconds the wisdom of ages is crowded.

Man bursts through all the partitions which separate him from God; he comes boldly into the presence of God and finds God there.

Reason as one may; explain psychologically and philosophically as some will; men who have had the experience of God’s presence will never be convinced there is a doubt of his reality.

They may not be able to give a clear, understandable intellectual account or proof of his presence.  But they know he is real.

They have been with him when all other realities have faded out of experience, leaving only God and the individual.

You may call this mysticism or by some other name.  By whatever name it is called or however it is explained, it reveals this; that when men are deprived of all human achievements and are left stark nude as simply man, there is a part of them which recognizes God because [that part] is of the same character as God.

These words, were penned by Tip not long after a series of battles in the New Solomons campaign, one in which he earned a Legion of Merit for Valor, repeatedly having dragged his dead and dying men to their lines – often from within 30 feet of enemy pillboxes while under machine gun fire.  It was during that time that the photo on the screen was taken of him burying the dead after the Battle of Munda.  As an aside, this photo was taken by the AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, who would two years later photograph the iconic flag-raising at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.

It is in such moments in life, as Tip wrote, that one “comes boldly into the presence of God and finds God there,” for in that moment “there is only God and the individual.”  An experience that confirmed and deepened Tip’s faith, which came through to me as a young man via his utter absence of judgment when I found myself in a time of challenge – finally putting me on the path leading to ministry.

I think we would be mistaken if we limited his keen insight only to those who’ve worn the cloth of our nation.  ANYONE who’s been through the fire of existential crisis — in whatever form it has presented itself — knows full well that moment when those partitions — of which Tip spoke — fall away.  It is an image not unlike the veil shrouding the Holy of Holies falling away at the moment of Christ’s crucifixion.

SO WHAT?

It seems to me that this is the very place in life which Tip described in 1943, as he rested between island battles, of the clarifying moment in life when one is faced with the reality that one is undone, unless there is a God who cares for the individual.  It is then when one comes face-to-face with the God who cares for the individual.

If it is amid such existential crisis that the clarion call of the Gospel and its word of hope stands out in starkest relief against the darkened sky, the words are ever-present and eternal.  Said our Lord, in ageless words,

“… God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:16-17].

The Ones Whom Jesus Loves

john 15.9*Sermon of Sunday, May 6, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the sixth Sunday in Easter.   It is an odd thing but I find that so many of us have a hard time remembering how Jesus views us, view ourselves or others, and just how much of his ministry was lifting people up, looking them in the eye, and pronouncing worth.  The sermon title is, I think, the place we should start and end every day.  Also, I realize that I made a few changes during preaching that are not reflected here, but so it goes! -Vinson

Gospel of John 15:9-19 (New Revised Standard Version)

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants[a] any longer, because the servant[b] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

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INTRODUCTION

There is just so much packed into the words of Jesus that we have heard this morning from the Gospel of John.

Words which speak of abiding in the love of Jesus as much as Jesus does in God; which speak of experiencing genuine joy, all-encompassing, sustaining joy; which speak of being called to love one another as Jesus first loves us; and which speak of invitation to the ultimate friendship, and the comfort of being chosen.

Words so rich in meaningfulness, I find myself wondering if each of these phrases were spoken as points upon which Jesus elaborated more fully in person than the Gospel records.  Perhaps their summation is best put in Philip Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing about Grace?” wherein he writes, “Not long ago I received in the mail a postcard from a friend that had on it only six words, ‘I am the one Jesus loves’” [see Note 1].

When Yancey called the friend who sent the postcard, he was told that this simple statement had come from the author and speaker Brennan Manning who had referred to Jesus’ closest friend on earth, the disciple named John, identified in the Gospels as “the one Jesus loved.”  Manning, his friend recalled, had noted that if John were to be asked, “What is your primary identity in life?” he would have not replied “I am a disciple, an apostle, an evangelist, an author of one of the four Gospels.”  Instead, Manning said that John would have simply said “I am the one Jesus loves” [see Note 2].

WHY I BRING THIS UP

This brings me to ask this morning, how does it change our view of ourselves and of others – if we would identify ourselves in our own minds and hearts foremost as “the one Jesus whom loves.”

FOR INSTANCE

A century ago, Charles Cooley articulated a theory that sociologists call “The Looking-Glass Self.”  In this theory, people develop a sense of who they are and what to think of themselves by watching the reactions of the people in their “primary group” as well as those they meet throughout their lives.  Cooley thought “we gain a sense of who we are by observing our own actions… but we also pay close attention to what others think of us — or to put it more exactly, what we think others think of us” [see Note 3].  In sum, we become what the most important person in our life thinks we are.

Now while no one theory does it all, this seems to have some merit when looking at this passage from John.  I think back on when I was overseas on a carrier based out of Japan and the chaplains office handled all the American Red Cross messages.  We averaged 2,500 to 3,000 per year.  Some were happy events, others not.  Some were the classic “health and welfare” from parents who had not heard from their sons, but 6-10 messages a day were death notifications… many for grandparents.  I noticed, amid the grief processing as their stories emerged, that these young men, as children, had experienced the kind of blessing that grandparents give that is just different than parents.  I refer to it as the “you’re loved and you’re OK” acknowledgment which sends them out into the world.  It became clear to me that a lot of how those young folk saw themselves… as having potential… as having talent… as being worthy of love – was very much influenced by how their grandparents saw them.  It particularly reminded me of my relationship with my Grandpa Miller who, even in the little things like teaching — then trusting! — me to pick out the watermelon, changed forever how I saw myself.

On the other hand, I’ve been amid enough stories during counseling to also know that people are fallible and whether family, friends, bosses, or others in society – some leave marks of injury, even serious ones, which cloud how some view themselves.  Relationships, after all, can be complicated.  So the limit of “The Looking-Glass Self” theory in this regard, isn’t that it is wrong – it is that the image imposed and accepted can sometimes be less than healthy.  It’s no wonder then that, as the Bible speaks of “the sins of the father to the third and fourth generations,” or “the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”,  “STUFF” can get passed along that may negatively shape the next generation’s view of themselves – and can be limiting, even debilitating.  The same is true for every relationship, work or home, as stuff can be projected upon us by others that becomes a part of us in not always life-affirming ways, whether we are talking racism, sexism, or a host of other soul-damaging examples.  They are out there.

Standing amid this mix of backdrop, with not everyone assured of coming out of family systems or life experiences at school, work, in society and relationship which provide a positive “looking glass,” there is the Gospel message.  WE are the love of Christ.  OUR belief in Jesus’ words changes how we see ourselves, one another, the world, and the circumstances of our lives.  It is this very belief which equips us to keep his commandment to love one another.  It is when we know these TRUTHS about ourselves, through the eyes of God, that our only response can be one of love.  We can do nothing else.  As the Psalmist declared, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” [Psalm 37:4].

Knowing this is actually how our Lord looks at us.  Not at our histories… not at our perceived failures or imperfections… nor at how we sense others have looked at us and judged us.  I ask you to listen carefully to the words of Jesus and take them to heart – not diminishing or dismissing them one way or another, but absorbing them into your being:

I love you with the same love that the Father loves me.  You have what I have.

I give to you the joy the Father and I share.  You are part of us.

YOU are my joy, my life, and my purpose.

I want your joy to be full, complete, whole, and perfect.

You are my friends, my peers, my equals.

I have told you everything.  Nothing is held back or kept secret.

I chose you.  I picked you.  I wanted you.

I appointed, ordained, commissioned, and sent you to bear fruit, to love one another.  I trust and believe you can do this.

SO WHAT?

All of this brings me to ask something of all of us this morning:  Will we see ourselves, first and foremost, in our own minds and hearts as “I am the one Jesus loves?”

And, once this conception of being so cherished is cemented in our spirits, will this change our view of ourselves, since life in Christ is always a “we and Jesus” not a “me and Jesus”?  At least in theory, it SHOULD change our sense of place and purpose, along with our sense of wellness and peace.

Let me ask you also to take this concept of each human being we meet out into the world …this hour, …this day, …this week.  Every single person whose path we cross is also “one whom Jesus loves” – regardless of their situation physically, mentally, financially, emotionally, regardless of their position in society or their perceived shortcomings or their all too human weaknesses or their feeling of how overwhelming and challenging this life can be in the moment, or the week, or the year.  Let us leave here to meet all whom Jesus loves right where they are…… one loved one to another.

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Pastor’s Notes 1 & 2: Philip Yancey, “What’s So Amazing about Grace?.  Note 3: “Charles Horton Cooley and the Looking Glass Self,” at https://record.umich.edu/articles/charles-horton-cooley-and-looking-glass-self.  Accessed 05 May 2018.

God’s Love. Broader Than We Think?

acts 8*Sermon of Sunday, April 29, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the fifth Sunday in Easter, as we inch toward Pentecost.  It is not meant to wrap up everything in a bow, but to start you to thinking.   Open to the Spirit, we can find ourselves amid interesting conversations, ones that stretch our limited thinking in new ways and a larger view of what God is doing even now. -Vinson

Book of Acts 8:26-40 (New Revised Standard Version)

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road tht goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
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INTRODUCTION

It was 1971 and Easter was coming.  I’d been through the “Pastor’s Classes.”  Knew the answers.  If there had been a test, I think I would have aced it.  But something gnawed at me.

Was I ready?

The day was getting closer to my baptism.  So, I thought, why not suggest to God that a particular sign would be helpful confirmation for me to go ahead into the waters.  For some reason the whole, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus spoke against wasn’t in my thinking.  Maybe because I was about to become a teenager and testing comes with the turf!

So a few days passed.  No sign.

I said to God that maybe I was asking too much and I cut the request down a bit, as to the sign I needed, if I was to go through with baptism.

A few days more passed.  No sign.

Now it was Holy Week, and I was a bit anxious.  I mean, Dad was my pastor.  No small pressure there, although it wasn’t coming from my Dad.  It was all inside me.  I once again asked for a sign, a really small one would do just fine.  Not much.  A little one.  Then, I would be sure.

Saturday came.  No sign.

I said to God, OK, I get it.  I am the sign.  And I felt a sense of peace wash over me.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

We come to God with questions.  We may be tracking in the right direction, but anxious and uncertain of ourselves… and knowing own our faults and failings… sometimes, we need to be dragged into a new place of faith.

FOR INSTANCE

This is what comes to my mind when I hear this passage from Acts, of an Ethiopian eunuch traveling away from Jerusalem, heading back to his homeland by way of Gaza, where it’s reasonable to assume he would have boarded ship for home.

Here is this Secretary of the Treasury, who had been to Jerusalem for Passover having come from the region of Ethiopia with its ties to Israel dating to the reign of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a place that until they were evacuated to Israel in the 1970s, home to a “lost tribe” of Jews.  Wealthy enough to apparently purchase or perhaps receive as a gift for his queen, an Isaiah scroll, now reading the Hebrew text aloud and with ease.  Scratching his head over a certain portion from the 53rd chapter, when this encounter occurs; at an intersection of very different lives, amid noon-time sun and dust of the arid wilderness.  One is known for what he was – a eunuch, a visitor to the land, a royal official, riding in a chariot – a symbol of power and wealth, reading as another handled the ride.  The other is known by his name, running on foot to catch up, propelled forward by the Holy Spirit.  Two men separated by social class, race, and sexual identity, brought together by the Spirit and the word of God.

Approaching the chariot, Philip hears its occupant, the Ethiopian eunuch, reading a passage from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.  In his humiliation justice was denied him.  Who can describe his generation?  For his life is taken away from the earth.”

In the back and forth of questions, we learn much.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks.

“How can I, unless someone guides me?” the eunuch asks in response, as he takes the initiative to invite Philip to get in and sit beside him.

This was no mere weird hitchhiker encounter, as the next question posed by the eunuch is: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Now I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to have to keep identifying and thinking of someone limited to who they are physically and absent of a name.  Seems a bit dehumanizing, but maybe that is part of what Luke, in writing the Book of Acts, wants us to think about.  We may think about that various ways, but whatever the reason or however it happened that the man was made a eunuch did not matter under the Law of Moses, not when we read the Book of Deuteronomy [23:1].  That’s why, here this high court official, likely a Jew, certainly fluent in reading Hebrew, is identified throughout this passage neither by title, ethnic group, or nationality – but as a eunuch.  It would have meant something to the readers back then.

Making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – as a eunuch he would have been considered “blemished” and therefore banned from the assembly of the Lord, the temple gates would have shut to him, and he would have been humiliated.  Wondering aloud to Philip about these words: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.  In his humiliation justice was denied him.  Who can describe his generation?  For his life is taken away from the earth.”

There is a reason THIS particular passage caught the eunuch’s eye.Starting with this scripture, Philip shared the good news of Jesus Christ.  That’s all that is written about his witness.  For all the conversation, one sentence, no more.

We can speculate this passage echoed a bit of the eunuch’s own suffering, notwithstanding his status and wealth, or that he had heard things in Jerusalem that got him to thinking.

We can speculate that Philip recalled in detail the events of Holy Week and of Easter, and recounted the scriptures like Jesus did to Cleopas and the other disciple on Emmaus road.

We can speculate that Philip spoke of how Jesus both healed and welcomed into his midst, the marginalized – like the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the blind, the lame, even a bleeding and therefore unclean woman.

We can speculate that the eunuch might have wondered in response, “Does this include me?  Does Jesus welcome me into his midst?  Am I welcomed into this new assembly formed in his name?  Does it matter who I am… what I am… and which is part of my very identity?  Can I be accepted for me?

We can speculate that Philip points to the broad banner of the Messiah a couple chapters further along in Isaiah 56:3-5, “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’  For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’”

We can speculate that here, two chapters in Acts before Peter has a vision in which he speaks to the expanding reach of the Gospel, saying afterwards “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” [Acts 10:34-35], that the Spirit is already busy using Philip to deliver a similar message – to those considered somehow blemished under the Law, but who are not so in Christ.

We can speculate that in all of this, that as Philip and the eunuch both were being stretched by the power of the Gospel, they both spotted the water beside the road and the eunuch was the first to speak “Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  What is there to prevent me from being part of God’s family?  What is to prevent me from sharing in the bounty of God’s love?

We don’t know who led who to the water, but both go down to it.  The baptizer.  The baptized.

We do know both come up out of the water and are different.  The baptizer.  The baptized.

The leading of the Spirit, as evidenced in the Book of Acts, calls… even drags!… disciples of Jesus into the lives of people who are different, freed from the expectation of the others’ need to become “just like us.”  For, as another succinctly puts it: “The Spirit of God… has an uncanny ability to upset our comfort zones” [Citation noted below].

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of this story of divine compulsion, between a follower of Jesus and seeker of God, neither of whom sought this encounter?

What waters is the Spirit asking us to step into that expands our understanding of the reach of the Gospel?  Where and with whom are we discovering ourselves, where we would not have once expected?

Step into these waters of love, my friends, they are placed there by God.

Amen.

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Pastor’s Note:  I enjoy a fellow Disciples’ blog, who also follows the lectionary and offers insights.  Very thought-provoking.  I pulled one thing from him (cited) amid preps for this sermon.  You can find his blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey, and “Abiding in God’s Love” which I cited, found at: http://www.bobcornwall.com/2018/04/water-baptism-time-to-rejoice.html#more

Leading the Sheep Out

john 10*Sermon of Sunday, April 22, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the fourth Sunday in Easter.   Fond memories of being among those of my “flock” who raised sheep in Washington County, Pennsylvania. -Vinson
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Gospel of John 10:11-18 (New Revised Standard Version)

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

First Letter of John 3:16-24 (New Revised Standard Version)

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister[a] in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

INTRODUCTION

When I was a pastor up in Pennsylvania, I often wore a floppy hat and slick-soled boots, which along with my beard, sometimes caused me to be mistaken for an Amishman when I was in town.  And my congregation and neighbors?

Some businessmen and women, or in the trades.

Some farmers.

Some dairymen.

Some shepherds.

In that county — which once produced most of the wool in the U.S., and where the Disciples of Christ was born when Thomas Campbell published “The Declaration and Address” in 1809 – was near ideal land for sheep.

Rolling and often steep.  With limited bottom land good for corn and other cash crops, sheep put the often rocky hillsides in that area to good use – grazing down even the briers and weeds that would quickly overtake the land without either sheep or a bushhog, as neither cattle nor deer would touch them or the trees that just as quickly sprang up.  Cattle tend to tear up the steeper hillsides, exposing them to erosion, because of the combination of their weight and sharp hooves.

Out and about, I wore slick-soled boots because nothing else was as easy to scrape clean of “sheep dip” (as the black, smelly tar-like poop is called), as I dressed pretty much like most of my congregation who lived in the countryside.  Some, after all, would only be found in their fields, like Dave Horn, a tall, thin, extraordinarily quiet and calm man whose sheep clearly knew his voice.  When I think of a shepherd, I think of Dave, watching him as he led them into the barn at night for warmth and safety to protect them from feral dogs and other predators, or when I was out early and in the early light of day, he led them out into the pastures.

Always, he led them.  One doesn’t really drive sheep.  That will scatter them, kinda like people.  But they will follow the shepherd, whether coming in for the night or going out for the day.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

No small wonder that over the centuries it has been the image of the “Good Shepherd” most closely identified with Jesus.

FOR INSTANCE

In Jesus’ time, the hard work of the shepherd was neither prized nor esteemed. Its labor was reserved for the lowest of the low, the less promising young men of the community.  Shepherds smelled like the sheep and if you have smelled sheep, you would understand why the Egyptians – who raised cattle, so looked down on the Israelites – who raised sheep.  Yet here, in John 10:11, Jesus made a statement that was probably shocking, even contradictory, to the religious people standing before Him: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In the same sentence, He had just referred to Himself as both the I AM – the same almighty Yahweh who spoke to Moses in the burning bush – and a tender, lowly, protective, and humble shepherd.

And so, in the ancient church, it was the image of the good shepherd, far more than the crucified Christ or even Christ the King, that was portrayed on the walls of the worship spaces.

A young Jesus, carrying a single lamb upon his shoulders.

Many times over, found among the preserved paintings and drawings of Christians from the first centuries after Christ, for all the meaningful imagery expounded upon in scripture of Jesus as light, as vine, as pre-existent Word… it that of the shepherd that has resonated most among people – even among those who know nothing at all about sheep.

The image of the Good Shepherd holds our imagination, our hearts and our minds.

The image of the Good Shepherd, rooted in the 23rd Psalm and in the language here of the Gospel of John, that was held onto in those first centuries when throughout the Roman Empire it was a crime to be a believer in Christ, a crime that merited a death sentence.  Amid this, the comforting image of Christ as the Good Shepherd… calming his flock… leading his flock… feeding his flock.

The image of the Good Shepherd, has been held onto in our own lifetimes, during the Cold War and in hot wars alike, amid seismic changes to our society, and when nothing seems sure – the comforting image of the Good Shepherd, is that to which we turn.  Declared the Psalmist:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

Yet, here is this passage in John, it is also clear that while the Good Shepherd keeps watch and comforts, that doesn’t mean he makes us comfortable.  Being comfortable would mean staying in the barn, under the warm lights…  out of the rain…

Nope.

There is a reason why John places this smack between the healing of a blind man and the raising of a dead man – one can now see and the other now speak.  In both cases folks are upset because the ordered way of life is upended by Jesus.

Jesus isn’t going to be a guide who leads the sheep into a place of mere complacency, but where the sheep can feed and grow.

This means moving the sheep into the world.

If sheep are known to have excellent hearing, readily able to pinpoint the direction of sound with their ears, they are just as easily frightened by sudden loud noises, becoming nervous and difficult to handle.  It is the shepherd who minimizes their stress by speaking in a quiet, calm voice.  Calling them.  Directing them onward.

If sheep have large pupils and eyes placed more to the side of the head giving them a 191 to 306-degree field of vision, depending upon how much wool is upon their faces, they also have really poor depth perception and may not be able to see the opening created by a partially opened gate.  Being reluctant to go where they can’t see, it is that shepherd who goes before them.  Leading them onward.

In the lesson, it is clear, the sheep cannot easily see the opening, and so Jesus enters in, as the gatekeeper opens the gate for him.  And the sheep, they hear his voice, for he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

Jesus enters in and leads the sheep – us – out.

Jesus leads the sheep out.  Not in.

SO WHAT?

Jesus entered the world to lead us out.

Finding us where we are and as we are – at time perhaps a bit witless, defenseless, and obstinate – and transforming us into friends as he said in John 15:11-17.

Friends who aren’t held at arm’s length while the host holds his breath against the stench that comes with being sheep – but friends who are embraced, held close, kissed, loved.

Friends, not just to be fed, but to be transformed.

The sheep, emulating the Good Shepherd, extending his protection, his love, his grace.  Perhaps clearing out the briers to make a place for the other sheep he wants to bring into the fold, who hear his voice too.

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Pastor’s Note: 

Because I am Your Friend

Emmaus-Road - Copy*Sermon of Sunday, April 15, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the third Sunday in Easter.  I remain grateful to those who look for ways to help me as I seek to help others, as you will see in my note at end of this post, followed by a list of those resources I have quoted (credit where credit is due!).  -Vinson
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Gospel of Luke 24:36-48 (New Revised Standard Version)

3While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.  44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.

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INTRODUCTION

The mile-high desert of volcanic ash and rock, at the center of the Big Island of Hawaii, was where I spent most of the two years I was a battalion chaplain with Marine artillery.  There we conducted live fire exercises in conjunction with infantry and close air support, and away from phones and email.  There is nothing like being in the field to get to know people, and it was there that I got to know the Operations Officer.

One night, Hank walked up to me in the dark twilight.  It sometimes frustrated him that I could call out his name, even in near pitch dark, just by hearing his footsteps and seeing in the distance the stride of the shadowy figure.  On one of those encounters, heavily engaged in conversation, and a bit frustrated, he suddenly asked: “Chaplain, why did you move next to me?”  It jarred me as I had not really been that aware, but apparently I had moved from standing face-to-face, to being beside him – repeatedly.  Surprised, I responded, saying: “Because I am your friend.”  What I meant was that instead of the posture of being face-to-face which is a position of challenge, I tended to stand beside him, gesturing and talking so we could share our perspectives – as a friend would stand.

It is those days which I remember when I read of two men retreating away from Jerusalem, joined by a stranger who interrupts their conversation, asking: “What are you discussing as you walk along together?”

It is a dusty road and it had been some long days and restless nights.

“You must be the only person who was in Jerusalem with no idea of what’s been going on!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Jesus of Nazareth – that’s what!”

Walking beside each another, they begin to talk of a rabbi they admired so much, a prophet powerful in teaching and healing.  They could not grasp why their religious leaders would hand him over to a death sentence by the hated Roman authorities – and worse, for crimes he did not even commit.

They spoke of their certainty that he was the Messiah, the holy one who would lead Israel out of subjection.

They spoke of how some of the women followers had gone to his tomb in the Sabbath haste following the crucifixion.  The requirements to clean and scent his body had been postponed, but now they had found the tomb empty of Jesus, while also encountering angels telling them he was alive.

They spoke of how they discounted the women, something that sadly, women continue to deal with, and yet something HAD happened.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

All of this brings us to now, as it has been said, “Which of us has not, at least once, walked the road to Emmaus, full of uncertainty about Jesus; full of disappointed hopes for his Church?” [Endnote 1]  While the joy of Easter comes, there seems at times, a kind of spiritual dissonance that follows.  We hear that the Lord has risen, but look around expecting a magical transformation and it seems absent.

FOR INSTANCE

Perhaps, we are tempted to lose heart, for it has been noted, “We are undergoing the shock of the passing away in our society of a certain kind of thinking about God; Christ is, to all appearances, defeated; the Church and its liturgy seems irrelevant to the unbelieving masses of people fascinated (instead) by latter-day idols.” [Endnote 2].  A quick review of the past week’s news shows it full of salacious new details of those in governance, full of war, and full of faith leaders who have abandoned principle over power.  It can cause one to wonder if people of faith are actually making a difference, with scandal and hate-tinged rhetoric on the rise, even as churches have found too many of their disciples scattered to the four winds.

But it is precisely on the road to Emmaus, a journey from despondency to faith, taking us from retreat to pressing the good fight, where we meet the disguised companion, Jesus himself.  Then and now, Jesus takes his disciples where we are, while perhaps questioning us at length.  It is THIS Resurrection story which may seem so much closer to our lives – precisely because it does find us on the road, not in the Upper Room, walking back to ordinary life… “scared, dejected, perplexed.”  For here was “a walk of sadness and gloom, of frustration and doubt; a walk filled with deliberation and discussion, but without answer and understanding, and thereby, without comfort; going, but without a sense of mission and purpose” [Endnote 3].  As it has been succinctly put, here is where the disciples begin “to suspect that the whole thing had been a mistake, a worthy hope and one unlikely ever to be realized” [Endnote 4].

While Jesus calls them “foolish,” the context of that word in the New Testament Greek is best captured in “The Cotton Patch Version of Luke” [vs. 26-27], where Jesus said to them “O how dense you are, and how sluggish of minds in catching on to all that the prophets spoke?  Can’t you see how necessary it was for the Leader to suffer like this…” [Endnote 5]  Lifting up text after text, out of the some 140 references within the Old Testament that spell out the journey the Messiah must experience – the very one that led Jesus from Palm Sunday through Easter, with the heartbreaking stops at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – they converse mightily on that road.

Yet, even when Jesus expounds upon scripture to the two, they do not recognize him.  Like Cleopas and his companion, we ourselves may talk endlessly, and for all the many shelves filled in our church library, internet blogs we read, or religious TV channels we watch – talk does not always lift our sadness or low expectations of what God could or should do.

There is a tone of resignation in Luke’s story, maybe in our own lives.

But, then something happens.

They don’t go home, or at least not right away, deciding on stopping for the day at an inn.  Intrigued by the conversation, but not yet believing, warmed somehow with glimmers of understanding and perhaps a hint of hope that they have been wrong – the intensity of the verb used in the text means to “twist someone’s arm,” to compel them.

And so, they prevail upon Jesus to stop and eat with them, not realizing that it had been his plan all along.  Here things change – in the moment that the table the habits they formed as disciples, natural to them now in ways they didn’t realize, opens the table the stranger and the self-giving attitude of Jesus is taken up.  Remember, it was “in Jesus’ characteristic behavior of giving, of feeding, of caring for his sheep – whatever way you want to describe the blessing and distributing of bread – that they knew him.” In the feeding of others “at the right time and in receiving the bread broken for us with thanksgiving, we are given Jesus.”

Writes the Apostle John in his first letter, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”  Adding, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” [I John 3:1a, 2]

The message is clear.

“Stop talking, stop everything…pay attention as you reach out to receive what is blessed.  A glimpse of the Lord may propel you to a new confidence, a new hope, even a new way of remembering.”

“Cleopas and his companion are us.”

“They know a lot.  They care a lot.”

“They think about things and are saddened by their diminished hopes.  More important, they don’t even know that their eyes have been closed until suddenly they are opened.” [Endnote 6]

Here it is to finally understand that “I am enough,” as one Christian author puts it, as the Lord’s grace-bearers.  “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” says John [I John 3:1].  God loves us.  Not for our stuff or our accomplishments, or even for how fervent we are in prayer – rather, God loves us because that is the nature of God.  So then, as John puts it, Christ abides in us, and we are meant to embody and to pass on God’s love.  That very “love is what will repair a broken world.”  This is what opens eyes to the Risen Lord.

Isn’t that the message Luke seeks to convey in his retelling of contrasts?

How if it takes the two disciples the better part of a day to plod their melancholy path away from Jerusalem to an inn near their home, their return to Jerusalem is clearly much faster!

How they move from being tellers of a sad story and conversation partners about the happenings and hopes they once had, to being tellers of a story of seeing the Lord in the breaking of the bread.

How they move from spiritual refugees fleeing Jerusalem, to spiritual witnesses bearing new hope.

How in the breaking of the bread, they know the Lord, and I would suggest – finally themselves, through his eyes, for it was then that “he gave them the insight to understand the Scriptures” [Endnote 7].

SO WHAT?

As we journey through these Sundays in Easter, on the way to Pentecost, I would suggest that as children of God we are called forth in devotion to making the world into the world that God wants…

The “…world (in which) all God’s children recognize and treat each other as God’s own flesh.”

The world in the face of which“…forces that diminish and dismantle and terrorize anyone, we (can now) say, ‘We are enough.’” [Endnote 8]

The world, as the late theologian Walter Rauschenbusch put it more than a century ago, where Christ died “…to SUBSTITUTE LOVE for selfishness as the basis of human society,” as the Kingdom of God is about the business of “transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven” [Endnote 9].

This is why the Gospel of John “does not stop at merely saying that we are enough.  He says that we are becoming more” [Endnote 10], for as John writes: “What we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him” [1 John 3:2b].

In Christ, we are enough.

In Christ, we are called to rise with Him and share the Good News with others – they are enough too!

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes: In reference to the Marine officer of which I spoke, about a week after the interaction cited, by which time we were back “in garrison,” Hank called me in to talk about how I could reach more of the men by changing up how I conducted services in the field.  I went to 7-8 minute “gun crew” devotional service – in which I literally went from gun crew to gun crew (there are six howitzers in a battery), “XO Pit” and “Comm Shack” for all the firing batteries, vice a 30-minute battery-level service.  It wasn’t just that it resulted in 85% of the battalion attending a service (with me doing up to 23 separate services on Sunday, from sun-up to midnight!), it was that it changed my relationship with gun crew chiefs – as they began to increase my counseling load (especially relationship counseling) while in the field, reducing much of the “at home” issues.  But here’s the thing… it changed me as much as it changed anyone else! – Vinson
ENDNOTES (USED IN SERMON PREPS): 
(1) The Community of Affirmation, “Meditation for Christians: A Christian Website about Prayer and Meditation,” quoting Genstall Missal.  http://www.meditationforchristians.com/sec3yra15.htm.  Accessed 14 April 2018.
(2) The Community of Affirmation.
(3) Raymond E. Brown, “A Risen Christ in Eastertime,” Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990.
(4) Sarah Henrich, “Commentary on Luke 24:13-35, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=933.  Accessed 13 April 2018
(5) Clarence Jordan, “The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts,” NY: Association Press, 1969, pp. 87-88.
(6) Jon Bloom, “The Eyes Jesus Opened First,” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-eyes-jesus-opened-first.  Accessed 13 April 2018.
(7) Jordan.
(8) Jake Owensby, “We will rise,” https://jakeowensby.com/2018/04/13/we-will-rise/.  Accessed 14 April 2018.
(9) Walter Rauschenbusch, “Dare We Be Christians,” Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1914.
(10) Owensby.

Celebration of Life: Mary A. Keith

download (1)Photo:  First Christian Church, Choir.  2014.
Celebration of Life message from the at April 15, 2018 service for Mary A. Keith, a long-time and very active member of First Christian Church.  It is a huge understatement to say she will be dearly missed by all of us.  -Vinson
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INTRODUCTION

One of the characteristics of the New Testament, especially the Gospels, is that when followers of Christ are mentioned it is because they were major influences in the first and second generation church.  Name-dropping is intentional, speaking to those known and typically still alive at the time of the writing.  They aren’t there just for a cameo appearance, but because of the work they were doing to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And so, what catches my attention is how the name “Mary” is so strongly associated with the ministry of Jesus, more than any other name.  Think about it for a moment.  Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrected Lord; Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who took the role of student at the feet of Jesus;  Mary, the mother of James and Joseph; Mary the wife of Cleopas and one of the first witnesses to the Resurrection; Mary, the mother of John Mark and sister of Barnabas; and even Mary of the church in Rome who was of such importance that Paul lifted her up by name – which was his way of noting who were leaders in the early church.   Of the women at the Crucifixion and those at the resurrection, all who were named, except for one, were called Mary.

Names were given in that culture as a personal description, rather than just as a given name.  In fact, given names were often dispensed with or replaced – as we see numerous times in Scripture.  And, as Hebrew does not have written vowels, MRY carries the meaning of “beloved.”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because such involvement in the lives of others in order to do good, and being “beloved” – fits how our Mary was truly experienced by each of us.

FOR INSTANCE

Raised in a large, rural North Carolina farm family, everyone had a role to play.  Tobacco was the mainstay, and for those who have never had the pleasure of working with tobacco, it is hard, hot, sweaty work.  Heaven help you if you wiped your eyes, because tobacco juice stings and blinds one for a couple of days.  Her brothers would work in the dark, extraordinarily hot tobacco barns, hanging the sticks holding the leaves to dry, working from the uppermost racks downward, until the last leaves would almost touch the ground.  Mary would needle the jute twine in and around the fresh pulled yellowing leaves, lashing them to the sticks – although she was notorious for putting more on one side of the stick that the other!  In all of the work at hand, she learned the type of family teamwork that would define her life – at work and at home.

I have to think this, along with a very sharp mind, is why as a customs broker she could flawlessly mange the international and logistical complexities of international shipping, first at Wilford Shade and then at Liebherr America.  In this, typical of Mary, she developed the kind of friendships and collegiality which foster successful work accomplishments, while also engendering the kind of loyalty that doesn’t end at the threshold – but is for life.  For instance, one comment posted by a former co-worker read: “It was a wonderful experience to work for and with Mary.  Her kind, calm and caring demeanor made everything easier. She became a dear and cherished friend…”

In church, as much as her former work life, Mary was all in!  Some of the photos that have flipped past on the screen touch all-too-briefly upon the many ways her faith was seamlessly integrated into her acts of service.  No small wonder I think of Mary, when I read the Letter of James, 2nd chapter [vs. 14-18]:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

But, in the end, illness was ever more closely limiting her ability to “do” for others, and on the 27th of the last month, Mary and I were talking.  It was clear to me how much she missed the people of this congregation and being a contributor to The Welcome Table.  For our guests today, “The Welcome Table” is a ministry of this congregation in which we feed 120-140 souls every week, as the Biblical “least of these” are welcomed and cared for.

Each Monday morning is food preparation time and Mary would sit at table, methodically slicing all of the bread to an exact width with a remarkable gadget, and then putting silverware and napkins into plastic sleeves.

Not a gregarious person, yet I always noticed how Mary was at the center of it all, sometimes interrupted by her short, pithy sentences full of meaning and her very dry wit!

Quietly working.

Having something funny to say.

Encouraging others.

Sharing a word of love.

This is what we experienced.  Mary was simply not wired to be a bystander when work was to be done, and she did not make distinction between friend and stranger, as to the largeness of her heart.  Whatever difficulty she had in walking the last year or so, it was not a hindrance to her work ethic – but most especially it did not limit her heart for others, including welcoming my wife into her embrace of love.

Mary’s hospitalization last December drew that portion of her work to a close for her, and how she missed it, and we, — her.

The table just seemed empty.

Quiet.

We were poorer for her absence and quiet witness to the physical work of the Gospel.  So, we crowded into her apartment for Christmas Carols to cheer her, and she was the one who wanted to cheer us.  We visited her countless times, family and friends alike.  What did she want?  To hear about our lives and what we were up to, soaking it up – because our beloved loved us.  Janice took books and read to her, and others visited as the staff at The Newport noticed – the crowd had followed Mary.

For a good reason.

I’ve been present for far too many in the process of dying, whether of hours or months, hundreds of souls.  I’ve watched some evidence fearfulness neediness… and who withdraw into themselves.  I’ve watched others evidence boldness, selflessness… those who serve up the last portion of their hearts to others – knowing the Lord will refill it all and more when they are taken up

Trapped in bed, for months – it was hard for Mary to be on the sidelines.  It just wasn’t her.  The legs just weren’t going to work anymore.  Infections had taken their toll on her stamina, as well.  Cancer was back.  Yet, she wanted to know how others were doing.  She wanted to know how things were at The Welcome Table.  She wanted to know how this grandchild and that was doing… how her kids were doing… how her siblings were doing.  She wanted to clear out what regrets she had, but most of all she wanted to be good with everyone.  No clearer example was on March 27th, when I recorded a video message to take back to the Monday “Welcome Table” kitchen crew.  It’s still on my phone.  In Mary’s words, a bit more clipped sentences as breathing was more difficult that day, she said everything that needed to be said:

“Tell everyone that I love them. I miss them. I can’t wait to be back with them.”  Then, she said, “I’m doing fine.  You all don’t worry about me.” I had to chuckle, when she said that.  Here she was, dealing with increasing pain and increasing disability, knowing it wasn’t going to get any better – and with that typical cadence in her voice, she added that she would try, in her words “to not be too much of a wimp.”

As the past two weeks slid by, more confident in letting God embrace her in the perfect healing, looking forward to heavenly reunion with cherished ones already in the Lord’s embrace, I can think of no more fitting words that those, which may be familiar to some:

I am standing upon the seashore.

A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze, and starts for the blue ocean.

She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch her until she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: “There!  She’s gone!”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight – that is all.

She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination. Her diminished size is in me, and not in her.

And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There!  She’s gone!” there are other eyes that are watching for her coming; and other voices ready to take up the glad shout:

“There she comes!”

And that is death.

Sunday last, the first thing she had to say when we walked in was “I’m ready!”  The day would become about her children seeing her, a granddaughter too.  No fear.  Just gentleness and trust in her Lord and Savior in approaching the great letting go in order to be bourn up to God.  No indication her time of departure would be so soon, but she was indeed “ready.”-

SO WHAT?

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” Paul wrote the Corinthians, “but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” [I Corinthians 13:12-13]

Tilting her head as Mary did when saying something that was the deepest part of her heart, Mary concluded the words she wished to be shared, meant for that Monday, they are all her – and her truest legacy:

“And I love you all, very much.”

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Pastor’s notes:  Obituary accessed on 13 April 2018, at http://www.legacy.com/funerals/peninsula-newport-news/obituary.aspx?n=mary-a-keith&pid=188729847
Mary A. Keith, 82, went to be with the Lord on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, after a long and courageous fight against leukemia. Mary was a wonderful and caring mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt and friend. She was preceded in death by her husband, James Keith and son Thomas Butch. Left to cherish her precious memory are sons John Butch, Timothy Butch, daughter Julie Sutton, and numerous other family members and friends. A Celebration of Life memorial service will be held 2 PM, Sunday, April 15th at First Christian Church in Hampton. The family will receive friends after the service. Memorials may be made to First Christian Church, 1458 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA 23666. Arrangements are under the care of Peninsula Funeral Home.

A Skeptic for Our Time

John20v19to31_2005Cartoon credit:  https://localsharedministry.com/tag/cartoon/.  Accessed April 8, 2018.

John 20:19-31 (New Revised Standard Version)

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
 *Sermon preached on Sunday, April 8, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on what is known as “Holy Humor Sunday” in part of Christendom.  Sermons aren’t always meant to “tie everything up in a nice neat bow” but make all of us think (preacher too!).   In everything, I am always open to follow up conversations.  -Vinson

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INTRODUCTION

I was still fairly new to the command when I stepped into one of the office suites full of cubbie holes and Navy SEALs working on various planning processes.  Greeted warmly by one of the officers, another made a very sarcastic comment.  A biting joke about Christianity.  We had not met before.  I caught my breath and chatted for a sec, then moved on.

The same thing happened the next day, as he leaned on one of those half-walls that surround cubbies.  He was an atheist.  What did I think about that?  I remember seeing the smile on the face of another SEAL and realized he was watching to see my reaction.  I joked back with an atheist joke to my new friend.  Caught off guard, an anti-Christian joke was batted back.  We went on this way with jokes, back and forth for 15 or 20 minutes, until he said he needed to get onto a meeting and it was good chatting.

In that moment, I realized he was a skeptic.  One with reasons.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because, because skepticism invites us into others’ faith struggles.  Yes, it might be in odd and even in off-putting ways, but regardless of the style of others’ approach to the subject of faith, aggressively or tentatively, we do well in remembering how difficult it can be to risk oneself in talking about matters of faith – especially the doubts.

FOR INSTANCE

In the lesson this morning we hear:  “…the other disciples told him –Thomas –, “We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  It’s easy to forget about the others standing in that upper room, as Jesus later uses Thomas for a teaching aid, just as he had with Peter and others on earlier occasions.  It really isn’t just about Thomas.  If he should have believed the word from the other disciples, when they said: “We have seen the Lord’ [20:25], then the other disciples should have believed the word from Mary Magdalene when she said: “I have seen the Lord” [20:18] instead of discounting them because they were women.  As an aside, this wasn’t exactly a high point in the church, but the early church had the integrity to allow its warts to be seen… for they too teach across the centuries.

In my seminary years, I was introduced to a bit of a tome in James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith.”  He broke out the developmental aspects to the journey toward God and must have surely thought of Thomas when he spoke of those who won’t blindly accept what others have said, but seek certainty for themselves.  For those whom Fowler called searchers back in 1981, the popular term now is “Seekers.”

“…regretfully… many adults in the church have never had the benefit of an environment which encouraged searching faith.  And so they are often frightened or disturbed by adolescents [or others!] who are struggling to enlarge their affiliative faith to include searching faith.  Some persons are forced out of the church during this state and, sadly, some never return; others remain in searching faith the rest of their lives.  In any case,” he writes of them, “…surely they need to be encouraged to remain within the faith community during their intellectual struggle, experimentation, and first endeavors at commitment.”  [Fowler, Stages of Faith, p. 97]

Some do indeed raise questions, because of where they are in their spiritual development, not unlike adolescents can be challenging to some, asking things in ways that can rub others wrong.  Yet this is the very witness to their authentic walk, one that echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:37:  “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’”

As to my friend, I had picked up enough from bits and pieces… from him… from others in the community… and I could reasonably guess what had happened.  He had started out as a Christian, but then had just seen so much horror during various missions over the years that, well, he just became angry at God and had decided he would not believe in Him anymore.  Offended that life had been unjust, an emotional state that is now referred to as “moral injury,” he turned his back.

We continued to have encounters.  Once or twice every week.  For a couple of months.  Tennis ball-like banter.  Him throwing anti-Christian jokes at me and me in the moment creating anti-atheist jokes to send back.  Over time, the audience of SEALs grew.  Grinning… laughing… getting those expressions people get when they start thinking hard about something they just heard… and… in their own way, keeping score.

Neither of us ever took what the other said as personal or got angry.  Each encounter ended because, well… the Navy was paying us and we both had work to do!

It was a little weird.  But relationships can sometimes be a little weird.  Then one day he said something and I shot back “Oh, you DO believe in God!”

“No, I don’t!” he said.

“Yes, you do!”  I quickly ran through what he had said, using his own words to prove he did believe in God.  “I win!” I called out and bounded down the hall.

He yelled after me, “No, you didn’t!”

It was a little weird, but it was the SEAL community where weird was something of a relative thing.

The next morning he popped into my office and sat down.  No jokes this time.  He started off by saying, “You aren’t like the other chaplain.”  I was curious what that meant and asked, “Tell me about that?”  Apparently when he had attempted his edgy jokes with the chaplain before me, the chaplain got mad and stomped off.  This SEAL had been effectively shut down, when actually, in his own backhanded way, he was extending an invitation to help him find his way back to faith.  Sometimes, people just don’t know where to start… or they start off by showing their wound.  I have usually found that wounds are WHY others do not believe.

Sitting in my office after all those months of barbs, he began to unload those things in his life that really troubled him.  It was a very different conversation than from previous months.  I saw the real person, his griefs, and his fears.  Finally, he observed that his wife was in chapel every Sunday: Praying For HIM.  He might join her at chapel, he said.  Not that he believed, he said, grinning in a coy way.  Mere days later, he stopped by to tell me he had looked at the new command building plans and he had already made a change to them… to give me an office where SEALs could anonymously slide in and out of my office for counseling.  He wanted them to be able to talk with me.  Henceforth, he always made a point of talking about his wife’s joy, because he continued, finally, to be with her at chapel, and he delighted to share what the priest said that would make him think.

I have thought of him many times over the years, a reminder of the need to meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.  When I read of Thomas, even though their stories and context are so very different as to how and why they sought proof, it brings me back.  Let’s face it, who among us, doesn’t immediately say “Doubting Thomas” when hearing that name?  A moniker.  A label.  A confinement.  A judgment.  At the same time, what’s our internal reaction when we hear someone is an atheist or agnostic?  I just think the Kingdom of God is poorer for such limitations we impose in our reactions; certainly they can impede our ability to walk with others in ways that work, as the witnesses to the Resurrected Lord.

“Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” [20:26], the word “peace” throughout the New Testament, being used to describe the type of relationship between people, rather than an inner, personal tranquility [see:  Mark 9:50; Romans 12:18; II Corinthians 13:11; and I Thessalonians 5:13].  After all, relationship-building is the first step, if any words and witness are to make a dent.

If Thomas “is at a crossroads in his life as to what ”adjective will describe him: trusting or not, faithful or not, certain or not” …living in the lament tradition evident throughout the Psalms, Job, and the Prophets where “questioning God is an aspect of faith” [Brian Stoffregen, in Exegetical Notes], then it also seems to me that the safest place in the world for skeptics to stand – should be among us.  Let me repeat that:  the safest place in the world for skeptics to stand SHOULD be AMONG US.  Indeed, in the Book of Acts, the early church honored such spiritual honesty and critical thinking, noting “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” [Acts 17:11].

SO WHAT?

So where do we go from here?

Perhaps some seek such evidence as they have a mind that craves sensory proof of one kind of another.

Perhaps some seek such evidence in the link of those identified as Christian, and the words and way of life set forth for Christians in scripture.

Perhaps some just SIMPLY SEEK because they have been wounded severely in life and need to work through their righteous anger.

What they do have is the Gospel …and us.  It may just come down to whether we are willing to stand in the place of Jesus – and in Fowler’s words — encourage them “to remain within the faith community during their intellectual struggle, experimentation, and first endeavors at commitment.”

Most of our lives — right now, this very day even, — are filled with questions for which we do not yet have the answers.  In point of fact, many of us will not HAVE all the answers we seek until we stand before God.  In the meantime, let us embrace knowing that we – and others – are still seekers.  Let us be a safe place for questions, discussions, growth, and love.  And above ALL things, LOVE.

Amen!

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Pastor’s notes:  Two resources helpful in preparation of this sermon.  James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning.  NY: Harpercollins College Division, 1981 (My copy is from 1981, but I think it is still in print); and Brian Stoffregen, in Exegetical Notes, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john20x19e2.htm. Accessed: April 5, 2018.