“Picturing Faith”

blogphoto*Preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 18 August 2019.  As the late William Barclay put it, “The honour roll of history is of people who chose to be in God’s minority rather than with the world’s majority.”  It is an honor roll of the known and mostly unknown, who have found gratitude for the life God gives.  -Vinson


Letter to the Hebrews 11:29-12:2 (New Revised Standard Version)

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.  By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.  By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.  And what more should I say?  For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Women received their dead by resurrection.  Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.   Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.



Dad was a “photobug” with Ektachrome, the slides are now scattered among my siblings and me.  He wasn’t much for the old style photo albums like my Mom, and once or twice a year Dad would get out the slide projector and away we would go.  I think the best slide show of all was when Dad took photos of my dog Peanuts for my Mom who made up for her music classes a marvelous story of my dog trying to figure out who and what she was.  Given she was a pretty homely combination of Dachshund and Chihuahua, it took a lot of slides and a lot of music.

Photos nearly ALWAYS elicit a story… about a pet… a person… a funny or a sad adventure.  They are about life as, they stir remembrances.  Having scanned countless old family photographs and organized them, at times it is amazing to see what traits and characteristics pass through the generations.  It’s like when my daughter was three, Julie wanted to see what I looked like without my mustache again.  She had only seen me without it for a few days, at the end of Chaplains School in 1993.  Having finally reunited our family as I had immediately deployed, she now wanted to decide if I actually looked better without it.  So I muttered and shaved it off.  A week went by and our daughter, all of three, then said to me one day that I needed to regrow my mustache.  I asked her why, to which she responded, “Daddy, it’s your nose, it’s too big without it!”  Besides our daughter being rather observant, it’s also very clear that I have my Grandmother Miller’s nose, just like my Dad did, and at last it finally found a face it has fit on the best:  our son!  Ah… family legacies!


Humor aside,  in a sense, the words the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews are really much like a spiritual family photo album, albeit one that isn’t descriptive of physical traits but of the spiritual courage even amid darkness of an untold cast of spiritual forebears.  In this lineage, we find our own humanity… and counsel for the lives we live as followers of Jesus.


So it is that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews elicits remembrances of those in the long story of successive generations of faith, whether those listed in the verses previous to today’s reading – such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses – as much as those in our reading who came after the Exodus, like Rahab who welcomed the scouts sent by Joshua, Sampson whose strength honored God, Daniel who shut the mouths of lions, Gideon who was a just and valiant warrior, and Esther who skillfully maneuvered to ensure the survival of the exiled people of Israel.

But because the span of faith is also made up of those unknown to us, the author acknowledges the nameless and extensive list of those who found themselves tortured, mocked, scourged, and tormented for and while holding faith in God.  I suppose this is an irony of the Letter to the Hebrews, as the one book in the New Testament that bears no author’s name, with attempts all the way back to the 3rd century, of ascribing it to Paul, even though its writing style is vastly different than his own… and Paul was always VERY clear as to putting his name what he wrote!  There is actually good reason to suspect it was written by a woman and when the early church moved away from prominent roles for women, if such a name was associated with Hebrews, it may well have disappeared.  The leading theory is that it was written by Priscilla of Rome, one who had been expelled along with other Jews by order of the Emperor, ending up in Corinth and making missionary journeys around the Mediterranean, before finally returning to Rome.  Personally, I think this makes the most sense, but again – this is looking at what facts do exist and fitting them together in a rather incomplete puzzle.

Nevertheless, one can only imagine how with each name, there was that air of recognition with their story coming to mind and resonating, just as much as our long-gone family members and friends.  Maybe it is just as well that in this journey of faith as Hebrews lists a veritable “Who’s Who” of the Old Testament laying the foundation for the fullness of God’s promises in Christ our Lord, that the author remains unknown!  And, if there are the names of those like Abraham or David or Daniel that have the “wow” factor, this mix of the honored also includes Rehab, a Canaanite women whose description is one of an innkeeper who ran a brothel [see Joshua 2:9-13] and yet who along with her family is brought into the people of Israel… becoming mother of Boaz who married Ruth, great-grandmother to King David and some 30 generations later… the so many greats-grandmother of Jesus [per genealogy in Matthew 1].  This is no accident of scripture, but the potent reminder to not dismiss anyone, including ourselves, as being part of the long narrative of God’s redemptive work over the millenniums.

We must also take note that in all of these images, there are those of both  triumph and of suffering.  Hebrews stands, therefore, in opposition to the assertion that one’s fate while on earth is a direct reflection of one’s spirituality.  I think this is important, as those who live in a culture that bandies people about as winners and losers, successes or failures – blaming the victim and lauding the victor.  This misses the larger truth, as written in Hebrews, for some “…did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” [Hebrews 11:13].

I suspect that the folks who first heard the letter read aloud to them were very needful of this encouragement, in an age when there was excessive pressure upon them to renounce their faith in Jesus as the Christ, and thus return to their former lives as Jews.  In the words of the late William Barkley:

“The intermingled categories are a word of encouragement for struggling Christians.  If we are struggling, and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is suffering, we might despair.  Must our suffering continue forever?  If we are struggling and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is triumph and victory, what hope is there for us?  But the mixing of suffering and triumph gives us a word of hope:  faithfulness shines both in suffering and in triumph, both in sorrow and in joy.”

But what if what’s next doesn’t seem close enough, and the cloud of witnesses, our perseverance, and our self-sacrifice just seem to come up short?

What if we aren’t so sure we can hold out to the end of the race, as in our humanity, fatigue sets in with the finish line a mile too far?

Having learned faith is about endurance as much as anything else, trusting in God’s eternal promises even amid circumstances that make one wonder if the promises are true, what if we just fear coming up short?

In the face of suffering – however suffering is experienced, including the sense of just being disconnected – how does faith nevertheless hold on for the certainty of a future in which God has something better in store?

We may well be full of such questions, each perhaps worthy of an extended and lengthy answer, but instead the writer of Hebrews holds up one last photo to us, the most important one, saying “Let us run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” [Hebrews 12:1].  Pioneer is the translation of  the Greek word, “archegos” – a word for author… beginner… instigator… impetus… trailblazer.  In the Greek games which are a cultural reference for the author writing from Rome, the team captain would run the race ahead of the team being the encouragement to his teammates as they followed in his steps.

For the first hearers of the Letter to the Hebrews it would have reminded them of Joshua, son of Nun, who scouted out the Promised Land for the people of the Exodus.  Now, it is Jesus who blazes a new trail through all of human existence and tested in every way like all of us, “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” [Hebrews 12:2].  The one who carries us the distance we cannot attain – in his joy.

For the first hearers of the Letter to the Hebrews it would have also reminded them of Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the first high priest after the exile, who came before the full presence of God, the needs of the people.  Now it is Jesus not only calls us across the finish line, but comes before God on our behalf, completing us where we lack that our faith may be whole.  Thus, when we feel the wear of the journey of faith… when we wonder:  Can we hold on?  Can we make it?  There is THIS word… that what we cannot do, Jesus has already accomplished.


So what do we make of all of this?  I missed the broadcast, but Jacque was thoughtful enough to send me the link of the thoughtful comedian Stephen Colbert talking with Anderson Cooper, whose mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, recently died.  Colbert was 11 years old when he lost his father and brothers in a plane crash, with Cooper being the same age when his own father died and his brother committed suicide.  Reading aloud something Colbert said of himself on another occasion, that he “had learned to love the thing I most wished had not happened,” Cooper kind of choked up.  Clearly grieving hard the death of his mother, which reawakened those earlier losses, Cooper asked of Colbert, who not infrequently alludes to his Christian faith and can quote scripture as well as any preacher, whether he really believed the quote from Tolkien that “what punishment of gods are not gifts?”

A gentle smile crossed Colbert’s face and he replied:

“If you’re grateful for your life …not everybody is and I’m not always, but it’s the most positive thing to do, then you have to be grateful for ALL of it.  You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.”

It was how, Colbert went on to share, he had discovered suffering is the one thing which affords us the deepest connection with other human beings… to his wife… his children… perfect strangers… and ultimately with God.

Colbert then added a few moments later,

“That’s the great gift of the sacrifice of Christ, is that God does it too.  That you’re really not alone.”




Sources:  William Barclay.  Daily Study Bible: Hebrews. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976).  Relevant. “Stephen Colbert’s Deeply Moving Conversation About God and Grief Is Required Viewing.”  16 August 2019, accessed on 17 August 2019 at: https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/stephen-colberts-deeply-moving-conversation-about-god-and-grief-is-required-viewing/?fbclid=IwAR38hFICkSDC_6QZLoUCQKLWYdxN6w46a_2lCm09h2ghRjyn7nD88Yzbfyc


“Listening Hands”

Slide1*Preached on 11 August 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Admittedly, the lectionary brings us to a tough text, but one highly relevant to our lives and times.  As always, I welcome your comments and your own insights. -Vinson


Book of Isaiah 1:1,10-20 (New Revised Standard Version)

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear the word of the Lord,
    you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
    learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be devoured by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.



A few short months after Julie and I were married on a hot August day in the mountains of North Carolina, I preached my first sermon.  Ever.  Being so newly married, I thought I’d use the 13th chapter of First Corinthians.  Who better than a newlywed to cover the whole description of God’s love in 15 minutes flat?!  Well, for a first effort, I expect it passed.  Not because it was so finely written and spoken, but because that very Sunday I realized those folk loved Julie and I, and in the months to come, we would learn that over the years those kind folk had come to see one of their missions as simply loving and thus equipping student ministers as they learned.  As for me?  36 years later, if I was to preach on that same word of Paul to the Corinthian community, I’d probably start out with the word: “Listen.”  The longer I’ve walked in faith and the longer I’ve walked with Julie, it’s because I have come to realize that no relationship can truly flourish without that dynamic of “listening” sustained at its core.

Listening, isn’t going through the well-rehearsed motions, whether it’s doing the dishes, cooking, doing laundry, mowing yards and all the like, no more than it is singing hymns, saying together the Lord’s Prayer and breaking bread at table.  Doing what’s religious is doing the routine, while doing spirituality is listening… paying attention to what is actually needed. It’s living a life of hearing and doing in response to the One who loves us, a life that not merely claims mercy for ourselves but actively seeks to be merciful to others.


I bring this up because it’s the absence of this divine listening which lies at the heart of what Isaiah is trying to get across, as to what’s been missing in the covenantal relationship between God and the people, and why God challenges their perceived faithfulness.


By way of background, I think if we are to grasp the words of Isaiah, a good starting place is found in Genesis 16:11, when “shema,” the Hebrew word for “hear” first appears in sacred text.  This isn’t just some randomly used word.  Hagar is driven out into the wilderness at the behest of Sarah.  Exhausted and fearful, she is “by a spring in the wilderness” when an angel speaks to her, assuring Hagar that she will bear a son, one whom she will call Ishmael – which literally means “God will hear.”  We may remember that after Ishmael is born, Sarah succeeded in persuading Abraham to permanently banish both mother and child, and so again wandering in the desert, Hagar finds herself hopeless and cries, anticipating Ishmael’s death.  This word “hear” then reappears in Genesis 21:17, for God has “heard the cry of the boy,” and then helps Hagar to find water so that mother and child are saved.  From this earliest time, God’s listening is thus seen as inseparable from then doing what is just.

God is not a passive listener — when and where people are not treated with mercy —  so, in Isaiah, God’s intent can best be put as: “Come, let us CORRECT this situation!  NOW!”  As one commemorator has put it:  “One can almost picture the effect:  people standing with mouths open in disbelief asking, ‘But why?’”  Not much different from our Gospel reading when Peter asks, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”

Can’t you just hear the cries of innocence?

Pleas that they HAVE been obedient, clockwork in bringing sacrifices and offerings, faithful in Temple attendance, dutiful in their prayers, observant of the Holy Days.

But then Isaiah drops a bomb on them, saying: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!”  Talk about a poke in the eye, in words that foreshadow what Ezekiel would later write [Ezekiel 16:49] of how God moved to end the “outrage” because “…Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  They were haughty…”   This is the accusation of injustice hanging in the air.

Now THAT would have anyone’s attention and certainly theirs, as Isaiah moves on to what can only be described as a truly penetrating question, intended to pierce any self-justification, speaking the word of God:  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” [Isaiah 1:10].

Shock upon shock!  I would imagine this took them by surprise.  “Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” [Isaiah 1:12-13].  What should be a sweet smell, stinks.  Offerings that should be valuable, worthless.  Holy days, beyond endurance.  Festivals, joyless.”

Let’s be honest, from the time we are young, we memorize the rules.  Play by them.  Work by them.  Things can roll along, all the boxes checked, but then there is that question that catches. I know, for instance, I’ve had those moments when Julie has said, “I need you to look at me, as she then made an observation or asked a question.”  It seems to me that Isaiah is asking each of us to look at God, hear the question clearly, and do some real soul-searching.  Not merely about our love and worship of God, but HOW that is lived out in daily life.  How we PRACTICE JUSTICE– especially when it is entirely too easy to get comfortable and to grow blind.

We must have this conversation in our nation right now and there is no better place to really dwell on it than in church, as the people of God.  It isn’t, however, a fun conversation.  [*Note: I made an aside that as the child of a community Civil Rights leader in  Eastern NC in the late 1960s, I really don’t enjoy going through this again.]  I think this is one reason the whole “White supremacy” conversation goes sideways at times, as a blind spot for many of us.  Every once in a while though, something bursts that bubble of self-delusion.  It’s like when I was standing in a line in McDonald’s and the cashier looked around the African-American woman in front of me, to ask my order.  I had to point to the woman and say, “She’s ahead of me.”  That’s when it sunk in as to what really was in play.  It’s like if we thought about what would have happened if the guy who walked into a Missouri Walmart two days ago wearing a bulletproof vest, carrying an AK-47 and a sidearm, supposedly to “test” his right to open carry in that state… if he had not been White, but instead a person of color?  Or, what would it be like for my friend, Rev. Sandhya Jha, a Disciples of Christ minister, if she wasn’t a person of color going through TSA, where EVERY time, in spite of her “fast pass” TSA Known Traveler Number, she gets pulled for a more thorough screening?  We supposedly embrace our national creed that “all (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  But it sure makes a difference as to skin color, doesn’t it?  We are just kidding ourselves if we don’t every day see the incremental and the great, injustices upon others.

Russel Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, is perhaps one of the strongest voices on ethics in our nation.  This week he published an unflinching word as to this scourge that has a long history in our nation, and like a perennial infection, is showing itself boldly right now, going beyond privilege but possessing a belief that denies the equality of people – a scourge which we, as church, must recognize exactly for the evil it is, as Moore writes:

White nationalism is not just another ideology, in a world filled with competing opinions.  White nationalism is a manifestation of an ancient evil that we as Christians, of all people, ought to recognize immediately.  White nationalism emerges from what the Bible calls “the way of the flesh.”  This is a form of idolatry that exalts one’s own creaturely attributes, making a god out of, for instance, one’s ancestral origins or one’s tribal culture.  This is not incidental to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but is precisely what the gospel everywhere in the Bible confronts and condemns.  John the Baptist confronts this anti-gospel on the banks of the Jordan River (Matthew 3:9), and the Apostle Paul does so in an Athens filled with pagan Grecian-superiority origin myths (Acts 17:26-27).  Much of the New Testament is a deconstruction of this satanic pull to the exaltation of the flesh.  The gospel does not merely reconcile isolated individuals to God, but the gospel also forms a new people who demonstrate the kingdom of God by those carnal dividing walls being torn down (Ephesians 3:1-12), such that within the gospel-formed church “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Lest we forget, Moore adds:

That’s why Jesus announced his ministry by explicitly denouncing the idea that God’s mission is, or ever has been, limited by racial, cultural, or tribal boundaries (Luke 4:24-27).  The people loved what Jesus was saying, until he touched on issues of race and nationality, and then they were “filled with wrath” and sought to throw him off of a cliff (Luke 4:28-29).  No doubt many accused him of “distracting” them from the Word of God by talking about “justice” and (other) such (uncomfortable) things.

Does that sound at all familiar as to what is happening now in our nation?

I am the first to say, I’d enjoy the escape from this hard stuff.  It would be easier to just keep it outside our conversation, even outside our doors, –to just enjoy our worship, sing our hymns, pray our prayers, be profoundly comfortable and grateful for the friendship and support of each other we find here – all truly commendable.  But, this would be more than incomplete worship and faith living in a bubble, it would be to live disconnected from God’s true vision of reconciliation.  If reconciliation with God comes as His free gift – unearned, undeserved, implicit in our reading from Isaiah, explicit in the Gospel of Jesus Christ – then we cannot affirm salvation by grace alone while not equally connecting grace to justice for all… not if we are to hold to the message of Jesus’ teaching [see Matthew 18].  Being a Christ-follower isn’t merely refrain from what are overtly evil actions, but being a deliberate counter-balance through positive efforts of justice for those who suffer.  Having faith in Jesus Christ isn’t a call to a pietistic experience apart from the lot of others where we can walk by on the other side of the road, it exists not in a vacuum, but in the action of good people, like the Good Samaritan.  That’s why, as we read Isaiah, we hear how God holds forth this verdict of “guilty” before the people, not to exact punishment, but as a path to reconciliation – if our worship is to have meaning.


“Seek justice. Relieve the oppressed. Judge the fatherless. Plead for the widow” [Isaiah 1:17b]  Using his personal name of Yahweh, God spells out what it means “to do good” and starts with to “seek justice.”  As God is just [see Deuteronomy 32:4], so God’s people are to be just – both those in governance and the community as a whole, as verse 10 makes clear.  Rulers have an obligation to render impartial justice [see Job 34:17-19], and are to guard the rights of the poor and needy [see Psalm 82:3; Jeremiah 5:28].  But we cannot dare just palm responsibility off on those who make the laws and see to their execution, not if we hear the words of Micah 6:8 that call upon us all to do justice and to walk with humility before God.  Concern for the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, and any who are vulnerable is at the forefront of God’s call for justice and witnessed to in Christ’s own words [see Matthew 25:31-46].  If those who rule can affect justice on a broad scale by passing just laws and enforcing them justly, all of us have the power to act justly on a one to one personal level and to push for justice in our community and throughout our nation.

So let us join in the words of Russell Moore, “Let’s grieve our fallen neighbors.  Let’s work together to stop such atrocities from happening in the future.  And let’s also, as Christians, be very clear about what this ideology is.  White nationalism is on the rise, and is headed for a confrontation with the gospel of a crucified Rabbi from Galilee……….




Citation:  Russell Moore. “White Nationalist Terrorism and the Gospel,” 06 August 2019.  Accessed on 07 August 2019 at:  https://www.russellmoore.com/2019/08/06/white-nationalist-terrorism-and-the-gospel/?fbclid=IwAR1JGI8s9Qcs1_o6mYA6KnfuQVte15SiFkEbD2-wmTMTkPQ3fLlvIPeL_TM

“The Fruit of Selfishness: Evil”

Presentation1*Sermon preached on 04 August 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Like pastors across the nation, I changed a chunk of my sermon in the waking of the mass killing in El Paso, Texas, only to wake up to a second event in Dayton, Ohio.  Yet, the Gospel always speaks, sometimes in ways we don’t anticipate.  For those present or not, the ending of the sermon was without notes, so I have done what I can to approximate what I said, and I am sure some on the spot edits aren’t reflected here.  It is past time to challenge the perspective that is contrary to the values of God and which are inflicting harm in many respects. – Vinson


Gospel of Luke 12:13-21 (New Revised Standard Version)

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”



Decades ago, I remember a family of five siblings whose aged mother had passed onto the Lord.  Yet, for all her holiness, like the Biblical priest Eli, her children had not absorbed her example and her teachings of God.  It was pretty clear as they soon made legal war on each other over the land, the house, everything.  It became two sides within months, that soon escalated into trespassing and counter trespassing charges, human waste being flung over a new fence line between a brother and sister’s homes and mockery of one whose son had committed suicide by putting up nooses on his land that she had to drive by every day.  It was beyond tragic.  Within the scope of our lifetimes, I have no doubt, we’ve all seen how an inheritance can divide families.  We have seen, like in Luke 12, how greed — the desire to have more than what one had been given – has played out.

We don’t know why the man has come to Jesus to divide the property, as such matters usually were resolved at the city gates among the elders.  Maybe the man didn’t get the answer he sought there, but regardless, my hunch is that Luke, ever the teacher, is using this as a way of speaking to issues that had arisen in the early church community.  We need only look at the Book of Acts, where “possessions” were often held in common and “distributed” to those in need [4:35], and yet problems developed with the daily distribution of food [6:1] when some felt that others received more than their fair share.

How quickly resentments emerge… over things.


How might we hear that inner voice of the selfishness in the “rich man” in our own time… as those who follow Jesus?  How might we hear it on a morning that we wake to hear of a second mass shooting, adding to El Paso’s toll of 20 dead and 19 wounded another 9 dead and 16 wounded?


At the beginning of the 12th chapter of Luke, we are givens the context for today’s reading, where Luke writes: “…when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another,”

This is our first hint that there is more than just this man… but a larger societal problem in play, that they would trample upon one another.

“he (Jesus) began to speak first to his disciples, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.  Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”

I bring this up because as those who are living now in an age of revelation, for “uncovering” is the deeper meaning of that word.

Hear the Gospel again:  “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

Setting aside for the moment that this very night he died, in spite of all that he has stowed away, what do you notice in his words?  What captures YOUR attention?


I counted ten “I” and “my” statements within 3 three sentences.  We might call it narcissism, after the Greek god who fell in love with his own reflection, but let’s call it for what it is:  selfishness.  Everything is all about himself.   There is no one else in his conversation.  Not family.  Not Friend.  Not God.

It would seem that we are living in an age that has actively encouraged that philosophy of selfishness.  It has come in the voice of the late writer Ayn Rand.  It has been articulated by the late economist Milton Friedman who fostered what Business Insider writes has:

“persuaded a generation that selfishness was the natural state of humanity and that selfishness ultimately would lead to the best possible society, when all the empirical data shows exactly the opposite: that people are capable of prosociality and that pro-social societies do better.”

 Friedman’s neoclassical theory held that:

“every human action is motivated by selfishness.  As such, all humans can be motivated into doing anything as long as there is an economic incentive for it.  In fact, no one does or should look out for the good of the collective — corporations should worry only for their shareholders and not for their workers or their customers, for example.  Individuals should think only about their own bottom line.  It’s all that matters to them really, anyway — the me, here, and now.”

Sounds a whole lot like the rich man, doesn’t it?  “Individuals should think only about their own bottom line… the me, here, and now.”

I’ve been wrestling with this… thinking about yesterday and today, El Paso and Dayton, how such selfishness is presenting itself in our society.  And, I’ve been remembering what it was like to be an ER chaplain at times when the accidents and gun violence in Kentucky made it impossible to not step in blood if I was to comfort the patients and calm the staff.  I said this earlier this morning to Sheila and with her permission I must share her response:

“I think we are that’s where we are, isn’t it?  Waking in blood with no clear place to step. Not in our schools.  Not in our churches, mosques or synagogues.  Not in the shopping center or the movie theater.  Not at family outings, birthday parties or community events.  And yet we look for ways to walk around the blood. Mental health, more guns, immigrant dehumanization, video games, song lyrics, just need Jesus.  Jesus walked in the blood.  Felt our pain, stood in our place and demands that when we follow him, we do the same for others.  Love our neighbor, walk in the blood and remove the thing that causes the pain.”

We are standing amid it.




How can we respond, as the followers of Jesus, to remove the thing that causes the pain?

I think we saw it in seeing people standing patiently in two or more hour long lines, out in the HOT weather, in order to donate blood.  It was watching a guy walk up and down the line feeding people pizza.

{Here I made an impromptu conclusion about the white supremacy feasting on resentments, the powerlessness and the grief we may feel right now and how I had looked about the house this morning for 29 tea candles and found exactly the number of those slain, as I invited the congregation to come forward and light one, and if so moved, to speak to their hearts and hopes}.

{Closed with prayer}


“How Baby Boomers Became the Most Selfish Generation,” by Linette Lopez.  Business Insider,, 30 Nov 2016.  Accessed 30 July 2019, at https://www.businessinsider.com/how-baby-boomers-became-the-most-selfish-generation-2016-11?fbclid=IwAR1k7vwQIgqD2yWOUbbnpP8yfT9hMOvLCZYBGg9PEUk5b2pUyPugZHXv2w0

“Left Behind”

blogphoto*Preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 14 July 2019.  I admit, I did feel this familiar text more painfully than usual, given it’s on a day when there is a nationwide sweep being conducted.  (I fear that particular discussion has been caught up in what is “legal” instead of what is “humane.”) When it comes to the story of the “Good Samaritan,” whether we look at what is a pretty divisive issue in our nation as to those seeking asylum… or our little part of the neighborhood… we cannot miss that the Word of God, over and over, expresses specific concern for the stranger and alien, whoever they happen to be or to represent (see Deuteronomy 10:18-19).  As a people of faith, we would do well to consider our Biblical roots… whether standing behind someone who is short on money at the grocery check-out line or in looking at larger issues of in our society.  In the end, each person is, without exception, a child of God.


The Gospel of Luke 10:25-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.   Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.   So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them.  Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.   The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”



In the long journey of my years in ministry, my training as a clinician, and processing adventures in life, I have concluded there are two forms of trauma which can afflict one’s body, mind and/or spirit – and they are abandonment and abuse.  In this story of grace, read from the Gospel this morning, the victim is unnamed and silent, but we know by inference he is a male Jew.  That’s it.  Abused, he had been set upon, beaten, robbed, and cast to the side of the road.

There are many ways to unpack this well-known story.  We can talk about how folks get so caught up in their “religious” work, like his fellow Jews – a priest and a senior layperson at the temple, who miss that the truest worship of God are those actions that lift up the downtrodden.  We can talk about the narrative being about a “Good Samaritan” as if he was somehow an aberration in what is a thinly disguised form of racism – something our society wrestles with as well.  But let’s start with what’s most obvious – a man abused and in severely dire straits is abandoned by those who walk on by.  Left behind, be it malice or not, this stands as a searing discount of the value of a life.  It happens all the time, all around us, sometimes to the point where it isn’t seen.

Like the plumb line that the Prophet Amos spoke of centuries before, one set “in the midst of my people Israel” [Amos 7:8], Jesus is dropping a plumb line amid this parable as he responded to the lawyer.  He does so while standing amid his own followers, this having taken place shortly after they had experienced a rather inhospitable reception in a Samaritan village.  In the intentional way of Luke, this is no accidental placement.  We might recall the brothers Zebedee, James and John, also known by Jesus as “the sons of thunder,” had actually asked Jesus to set fire to that village, out of their aggrieved sense of offense.


I would suspect they did not realize Jesus is using the lawyer to teach his own disciples, even as he used them on occasion to teach the crowds.  Asked to the effect, “How do you interpret the law to others?,” the real question in this parable is:  how do we interpret the Lord’s grace for others?


Luke is, after all, a doctor, and we know how doctors just love lawyers!  As the one Gospel author who often portrays lawyers in a bad light (try nine times!), there is a richness of irony in the telling.  Someone well-versed in debate, educated to parse words and nail down details, is used to air out prejudice and see the larger view of God.

Reciting the words of the Shema, a twice-a-day prayer, the lawyer adds the command from Leviticus 19:18, as to loving “one’s neighbor as oneself.”  Unsaid, is the rest of the direction of the Lord in this passage from Leviticus as to why one should “love your neighbor as yourself,” it is because “I am the LORD… When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

It really is a commendable response, as Jesus himself notes.  Nowhere before are these two commandments joined as one in scripture, and the lawyer is absolutely correct.  But, have you ever noticed how when someone is really pleased with themselves, they will say that one word too many that just undoes everything?  I know I’ve been there, just ask Julie!  So the lawyer asked, “But who IS MY NEIGHBOR?”  Reading between the lines, it’s like saying: “I am all about loving my neighbor as myself, Jesus, but not the wrong neighbor.  Rabbi, can you help me out by specifying exactly who I have to help and who I can just ignore?  What is the limit of my responsibility?”

What is ours indeed?

There is the implication of his hope the answer will be “People that look like and worship like me… fellow citizens of religious and tribal identity… people of purity, you know… the ones who I think belong here.” But can compassion be limited only to those for whom there is an established legal relationship?  Just fellow citizens of the kingdom?  Just fellow citizens of the nation?  It is an interesting question whether we are talking about the people in Hampton and Newport News, or the imprisoned children on the border.  You see, it is the Living Word of God because it is always relevant to what is happening around us, not just a couple millennium ago as if a just a history lesson.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus always knew what folk were really thinking?  Here he responds with a story and then asks the lawyer:  “Which of these three, do you think WAS A NEIGHBOR?”  He is asking of the man, “Who did you see that demonstrated what it LOOKS LIKE to be a neighbor?”  In the Kingdom of God perspective, neighbor is not a matter of the identity of the other, but instead, of owning identification with the values of the love we experience in Christ.  It’s a love that knows no boundaries, and which sets no limits on the grace flowing through some surprising and unanticipated places into the lives of those we’d not expect.

In an age when people are as quickly offended as James and John, and just as ready to call down fire on those they don’t like, an age that leaves me thinking if Jesus encountered Jewish Nationalism back then, now Jesus would run into the hardness of Christian Nationalism – a subservience of the faith to the technicalities of the law, instead of embracing what is the highest responsibility.  To be blunt, it’s wanting to know the restrictive limits of one’s duty to be compassionate, while Jesus points to living in the spirit of God’s kingdom as honoring God with an expansive understanding of “neighbor.”

It is hearing Jesus ask us to hold this vision:  “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me?”

It’s really that simple.

The Samaritan gets it.  Not for any other reason but to address human need, he responds to the needs of the man in the ditch, actions that cost him time and money.  Willingly.  There’s no mistaking the first two who came by expanded the distance between themselves and the hapless fellow in the ditch, rather than coming near… to be a neighbor.  Yet to his listeners, Jesus portrayed what is a “good” Samaritan”- an oxymoron to a first century Jew – making the marginalized as the compassionate, the abused as the caregiver, the abandoned as the present, and the stranger as the generous.

We have no idea why the man had been beaten or mugged.  Things happen and often there is no connection to any kind of justice we can see.  People have strokes, get cancer, have epilepsy, struggle with depression, are abused and abandoned – all, like Job on down, through no fault of their own.  Life just happens.  Good or bad.  It just IS.  We don’t always know the why.

If “Neighbor” is rooted in the same word that means “to be near,” we would rightly hear Jesus’ question as: “Who is the one who comes near when there is suffering?  THAT is the neighbor!”  And this, my friends, is really God’s value system, the very thing we see in Jesus.  Now think about a recent study by the Barna Institute which found that “although many of the churchless hold positive views of churches, a substantial number also have no idea what Christians have accomplished in the nation, either for the better or for the worse.  When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community…”  And then there is this…. If half of the unchurched could not name any contribution of Christians to the common good, among those who could it was seeing the poor being served, disadvantaged welcomed, the extension of love to those in one of the many kinds of ditches of life.

If the parable has elements of being a cautionary tale about justifying ourselves and watering down the concept of “Who is my neighbor,” it also unveils the need among the Jewish hearers to be “healed” of their prejudice.  In their case, a prejudice against Samaritans, by the setting aside the misuse of scriptural “laws” that create barriers to compassion.


So what do we make of all of this?

In this upside-down kingdom, Jesus calls each one to  strip away our self-delusions, and reveals how the ideology of tribalism which is an age-old affliction of humanity, is to be countered by the vision of faith.  There is no us and them, not in the realm of Jesus Christ; his own death is meant as the destruction of divisiveness, such that grace would grow where separation once ruled.  This is something we must ponder in personal and public life, the choices we make on a daily basis to see and to care for individuals, but also how we would influence our society.

All of this brings me back to something I noticed the evening we had our Welcome Table picnic.  It seemed a small thing, if a bit disconcerting. Connie had everyone draw a number and sit at that table’s number.  She mixed us all up!  Church members, husbands and wives, kids, sailors, neighbors.  All of us sitting in new patterns.  She busted up our little tribes!  It seems to me this is what Jesus is talking about, shattering such patterns in all of life, inviting us to sit with strangers as much as friends, inviting us to the discovery of each other’s stories, pulling down walls, inviting us to see one another.

We need to be – we must be – shaken up regularly, that love would abound.



Source: “Five Trends Among the Unchurched Research,”  Barna Institute, 09 October 2014.  Accessed on 13 July 2019 at: https://www.barna.com/research/five-trends-among-the-unchurched/






















The concern for the stranger and alien is a repeated theme throughout the Bible.  When speaking through Moses, God makes very clear that God “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [Deuteronomy 10:18-19].


The mercy of the Kingdom of God often comes only to those who seemingly have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes. The paradox is that the very one who is beaten and abandoned is the one who most experiences the kingdom of God.  As it has been said: “The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy” [Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom, p. 29].  In the kingdom, mercy is always a surprise.

Bernard Brandon Scott. “Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom,” p. 29.

“Prescription for Life!”

blogphoto*Preached on 07 July 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Before I go into the sermon, for point of clarification the story of Naaman takes place long after the David’s “United Kingdom” has come apart.  The text moves back and forth in saying “Sameria” and “ISrae’,” (elsewhere referred to also as the Northern Kingdom), but they are one and the same.  For simplicity’s sake I will just use “Israel” in the sermon.  “Judah” encompasses Jerusalem and this Southern Kingdom has retained its worship of God from the King on down, but it’s not so with Israel.  Shortly before this passage, Israel had been ruled by Ahab and Jezebel, whom we may recall, all but eradicated the prophets of God from Israel, with Elijah having been a thorn in their side.  Elijah is now gone, but Elisha and the other three primary disciples of Elijah remain and King Ahaziah is no God-worshipper either.  Also, for point of clarification, in the text both the “Syrians” and “Arameans” are names, but they are one and the same.


Book of II Kings 5:1-14 (New Revised Standard Version)

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.  Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.  She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  He would cure him of his leprosy.”  So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.  And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”  He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”  When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?  Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”  But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes?  Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”  So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.  Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”  But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?  Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.  But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.



There were times I would find myself totally stymied in a community of warriors, where all of them understood strategy.  Though each had sought me out for counseling, I would sometimes run into resistance when getting close to the issues at the heart of the matter.  No matter the approach, they were like wrestlers, tough to pin down and tough to open up, and so healing would be deferred.

In this narrative, we see another warrior, Naaman – a “great man,” says the Book of Kings, because he was fair in his dealings, there was an honor about him.  A great warrior of valor and yet suffering with a fearful disease like leprosy.  A man whose very name meant gracious or pleasant and yet on a raid into the Northern Kingdom Israel he had taken as a slave a young woman to serve his wife.  A feared enemy of Israel and yet he comes in unexpected peace and hope.  So like most of us, I expect, there are paradoxes about Naaman’s life.  Though he is spoken of with an element of admiration in the scripture, yet for all of that he has achieved and all of his prestige – the possibility of healing eludes him… until now.   Like the warriors among whom I served, Naaman was used to having a plan and being adaptable once it was in motion, that he could achieve his objectives, most always on his terms.  When put that way, it kind of sounds a bit like most of us, doesn’t it?

All of this puts me in mind of something I think I once mentioned to ya’ll, how I had Julie buy me, as only she could, the most garish Disney wand she could find, which is Tinkerbell, of course!  Then, when I ran into one of those frustrating occasions, I’d mention we weren’t really getting anywhere.  The warrior would shift uncomfortably in his seat in tacit admission, saying nothing.  I’d pull out trusty “Tinkerbell” and say something like, “My wife bought me this magic wand, and since we’re not making any progress I’d like to see if this works,” as I grinned and tapped them with it.  Don’t you imagine that the warrior Naaman must have looked as much or more incredulous as my warriors had with my Tinkerbell wand, when Elisha sent out word for Naaman to dip his whole body into the supremely muddy River Jordan River?


Ever notice how healing of the spirit takes place when we let go of the tendency to be in control and we instead move into a spirit of humility?


Sometimes in life, a sequence of events happens that one just cannot make up.  We’ve experienced it or at least witnessed it.  It’s no different here, as on a previous, harassing raid into Israel, Naaman like the rest of his men, brings home what can be carried – in this case, a young woman, one who possesses a keen faith in God, unlike either the king of Israel or the one to which she is now captive.  Now a personal servant to his wife, a better fate than many, the story pivots on her, as “She said to her mistress, ‘I wish that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  Then he would heal him of his leprosy’” [II Kings 5:3].  Many times we find ourselves in circumstances we would not choose, but in which we can serve God’s purposes.  Even if ruled by those who have no love for God, she knows there is a prophet who can help.

That word passes from Naaman’s wife to one of his aides who brings him word that “The maiden who is from the land of Israel said this” [II Kings 5:4].  The captive is taken seriously.  The wife is taken seriously.  The aide is taken seriously, and now Naaman comes to his king, Ben-hadad [see I Kings 6], because no matter how appealing – Naaman is one under authority and cannot go off on his own.  Being a king, Ben-hadad does want happens in any chain-of-command, a letter is prepared to be carried by Naaman to Ben-hadad’s rank peer, the King of Israel.

But, Naaman has history with Israel.  He has led raids into it… used by God, perhaps to punish an unfaithful land, or perhaps just to set this story in motion, we are not told by the author of the Book of Kings.  One might well imagine, the new king of Israel already knows just who he is, Naaman’s army having ensured the death of his father, King Ahab [see I Kings 22:29-36], amid a battle where Judah and Israel had formed a temporary alliance to attempt the recapture of a Levitical city on the east bank of the Jordan.  Now there is a new king, Ahaziah, on the throne, one who is, sadly, just as evil and conniving as his father, as Naaman arrives.  Accompanied by chariots of war and solders, yet he brings gold, silver, and vestments that in in 2019 dollars would be more than $6.5 million dollars, and a “letter to the king of Israel, saying, ‘Now when this letter has come to you, behold, I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may heal him of his leprosy’” [I Kings 5:6].  Ahaziah is alarmed, in spite of assurances, such lavish gifts naturally obligating him to assist an enemy, King Ben-hadad, by helping Naaman.

Yet the letter says nothing of how this had all started with a conversation between a captured young woman and Naaman’s wife, and most of all nothing is said about the prophet who lives in Israel.  Perhaps there is an assumption as to the court in Israel that they would know who to employ, but Ahaziah doesn’t: as he says “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends to me to heal a man of his leprosy?”  Yet, clearly, once again someone in the shadows knows God, passing word so that Elisha learns of the matter.

Imagine the somewhat chaotic scene as horses and chariots churn the dust toward Elisha’s humble abode, as Naaman arrives… large and in charge.  Or so he still thinks until Elisha doesn’t come out to greet him, but sends out his servant with the needed prescription.  Expecting Elisha to “come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of Yahweh his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leper,” instead he is informed by Elisha’s servant, to immerse himself in those extraordinary muddy waters of the River Jordan, and seven times at that!  Naaman came for a magical show only to be given this rather weird prescription, one that doesn’t even mention the name of God, and he becomes embarrassed in front of his men and utterly enraged.  Again, it’s through unnamed servants that counsel is offered, as they point out to Naaman that he would have embraced doing “some great thing,” so why can’t he do this small act to “Wash, and be clean?”

I find myself reminded of what my clinical supervisor dryly observed more than a decade ago, that half of prescriptions are not taken – because people don’t have buy in.  In this case, Naaman’s hand is forced, because ultimately what makes him “great” is that he listened… again and again, to those who weren’t in positions of power, but whose insights and faith guided him.  “See now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel” [II Kings 5:15b], says Naaman in an extraordinary affirmation of faith, as he attempts to give a gift to Elisha, who will have none of it.  Instead, Naaman finds himself asking for a second gift, two mule loads worth of dirt, upon which he can stand in worship back home.

What fascinates me about this whole narrative are the voices of the unnamed, of the servants, the invisible people, and even those with every reason to be enemies – who are a part of Naaman’s journey to wholeness.  It raises the question as to who has been a part of our own journey, those in the shadows, those whose names we might not recall, those we’ve bumped into and not seen, all of whom have been a part of our own story of finding God, of experiencing healing, of knowing peace.

Naaman got there by listening.  Even when he wasn’t happy about doing so, and even when by right in his culture, he could have been pretty awful.  I suspect this is why he is referred to as “great,” because he listened to the marginalized.   It was, after all, their voices that steered him all along, the kings and such were but bit players, in the way of the kingdom.


If we do acknowledge that is it such voices of the invisible people that God uses to teach us, to lead us, and even to heal us of our own afflicted spirits, then we need to wrestle with how to hear all the voices of the invisible, especially children.  Not just ours, whose names we know, or those across the way whose school supplies we work to provide, but those who are incarcerated as if they are offenders, in what are called detention facilities, but whose conditions remind me more of what I have seen in some very unpleasant countries.  The words of Hebrews 13:1-3 come to mind: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” 

If we were to be listeners, like Naaman was to his servants, listening to the voices of those on the margins, what might they have to teach us, then, about the God whose face we seek?  What would they have to teach us about being voices of counsel?  What would they say to how we may not just be healed, but become agents of God’s healing within our society, especially among those in distress?



Sources: “Patient Medication Adherence: Measures in Daily Practice,” Oman Medical Journal, 2011: May (26:3), pp. 155-159.  Accessed on 06 July 2019, at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3191684/

“The ‘Legion’ We Experience in Life”

PPT for WordPress*Sermon of 23 June 2019, preached at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Feel free to comment on the sermon, which speaks to a text that has challenges for us in our contemporary understandings of both evil and of mental health.  Alienation and loss of sense of “self” are in play and something to which most, if not all, of us can relate at some point in life.  If anything calls us to compassion, it is this.  Up front, I do not try to solve it all, as no one sermon even of indefinite length could achieve, but like most sermons… to give a place for reflection, for conversation, for permission to speak openly of those things which imprison and harm the spirit of people. Door is always open as well as all those “electronic” means of contemporary communication.  Blessings in Christ, Vinson

Gospel of Luke 8:26-39 (New Revised Standard Version

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.  As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him.  For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.  When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.  (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)  Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?”  He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.  They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.  Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these.  So he gave them permission.  Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.  Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.  Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.  Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.  So he got into the boat and returned.  The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”  So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.



Jesus asked him, “‘What is your name?’  He said, ‘Legion;’ for many demons had entered him.”  It isn’t his true name, but one descriptive of his present existence and what has become of him over an unknown span of time.  To the contemporary readers of the Gospel of Luke, this name would have been highly descriptive of the magnitude of his woes, a Roman legion being some 6,000 men.  So when he says he is Legion, it’s his way of saying, I have been overrun, divided, separated, fragmented and fractured.  I am disrupted and overwhelmed; my life is broken into 6000 pieces.

We know nothing of what life he had once lived, what his work had been, who is loved ones were… or are.  We only know his life is in 6,000 pieces and he is vulnerable, naked, exposed, and unclothed.  He no longer lives in a house in the village, but in the tombs. He is both alive and he is dead.

Like the pain scale that doctors have us use during visits, I would imagine that most of us have been somewhere on the scale of disintegration and disruption, at some point in life, amid loss, suffering, disease, depression, or just having way too many things to manage that it’s overwhelming.  Maybe we’ve been at a 3 or a 6.  Maybe we’ve been an 8.  Legion is at a 10.  He is lost to himself, even to the point that a sense of individual identity has been overshadowed.


Could it be that this story, this event, is about finding one’s identify again having had it stripped away by illness?  It is about when someone ceases to be who others think or even want them to be, and becomes the person God intended?


There’s much complexity to this text from Luke, who wants us to absorb a number of lessons and observations, I think.  This journey across the Sea of Galilee, to the land of the Samaritans, is the only foray Jesus makes to what would be considered a truly non-Jewish land, a trip that only see one life changed – and yet sends that person forth as a witness.  But first, they must get there, and in the preceding verses to our reading, they sail into a storm, awaken Jesus to lend a hand, with him rebuking the wind and sea that it would calm, and him chastising them as to their lack of faith – this first instance of Jesus having “power.”

They land upon a shore of several hundred yards looking up at cliffs: a place of caves, many used for burial of the dead, this shore three years before Luke would write his gospel, being where a Roman legion would slaughter some 1,000 rebels in the first Jewish Revolt, before laying waste to the nearby villages and all their inhabitants.  It’s a somewhat parched and desolate place, even today.  Here it is they encounter the man who calls himself Legion.

I believe that any understanding of what takes place has to be viewed through Luke, chapter 4.  Immediately upon the conclusion of Jesus’ temptation in the desert by a devil, coming to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus opened Isaiah and read [Luke 4:18-19]:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

       to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

       to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

“Release to the captives,” is a constant and recurrent theme in Luke, and Jesus power over demons is one sign of God’s kingdom breaking into human history.  However, in our age, we’re not so sure what to think about this talk of demons, if we’re honest.  Is there evil in the world?  Yes.  We know that is true, but how to describe it?  I know I’ve encountered it in people, and at times I’ve come home and told Julie that I met someone and felt its presence.  And, every time, that same person, often until then highly regarded, was in the naval brig within the week for horrific crimes.  I’ve been in places where I could sense the presence of evil, and several times, been asked to do something about it.  One military hospital had a history of suicidality among its military personnel, that IG investigations could never sort out, but which ended abruptly after a walk of prayer and scriptures read, late one night.  I was even shoved in one home, as a cold presence exited a room and the lights then brightened, amid prayers and scripture reading.  In quiet conversations with clergy friends, many have also had such experiences.  Yet, more often, these same pastors agree that evil presents itself more in line with the best translation of what gets rendered as the “serpent” in the Garden of Eden story:  “The Confuser.” – Often less recognized, but just as destructive, “The Confuser” is a spirit that sets people against one another.  It might be in the form of a stealthy agitator, or a chronic complainer or nitpicker who continually sows seeds of discord, or who instigates a “let’s you and him/her fight” game, all of which is the opposite of God’s Spirit that builds community and trusting relationships.  So, if I am a logical, well-educated person, I must affirm that there is also indeed evil in the world.  There is a malevolence – clear at times, yet also sometimes well-camouflaged — that very intentionally dehumanizes, demoralizes and strips away one’s sense of self-worth, destroys identity, and denies both dignity and safety.  YET, despite evil’s “tricks,” it remains incumbent upon us to recognize Jesus has authority over it and our faith can embolden us likewise.

As for this situation described in Luke, however, I also must acknowledge that in olden times and sometimes even now, mental illness was confused with “possession” of the spirit.  In looking at the description of the man as it compares to the current psychological Diagnostic and Statistical Manual standards, I have to wonder whether that is the case here, in this tortured man, whom others had sought to “manage” and, failing that, had instead then chosen to confine,– with only mixed success.

But, whether we are talking about evil or other destructive powers — or when we are talking about mental illness – in either case, it is the experience of dehumanization and loss of identity that is worthy of the compassion of Christ – who was sent “to proclaim release to the captives   and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  It’s no wonder, then, that the word used in verse 36 of Jesus having “healed” the man, is frequently used in Luke and translated as “saved” – because being saved from such turmoil is restoration indeed.  Jesus cured not just the disease itself, but the larger illness of being isolated– restoring him to his community.  I sometimes think that self and societal isolation is the most dire plague of our age.  It is no wonder we see so much mental illness, and anger, and high rates of self-injury these days.

If Jesus comes ashore into the land of Legion, he comes at the behest of his Father, as a rescuer to ALL mankind.  To the downtrodden, the incarcerated, the isolated, the ill, the disillusioned, the lonely, the anxious, and the struggling, Jesus brings understanding and THE presence of unity, wholeness, and integration – the true image of who we are and who we can become, as those created in the image of God, something which can neither be lost nor destroyed.

If Jesus comes unafraid of the tombs in which this man lives, he brings a peace that is not repulsed by the man’s nakedness or appearance – seeing beyond chains and shackles, unchallenged by the guard – for Legion has no authority over Jesus.

If “…the man saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’”– it should reassure each one of us that even if one is experiencing Legion’s sense of being lost and broken, something remains that can recognize the divine one who saves.  Even amid this chaos, in spite of what gets covered over or denied or forgotten – Jesus is the truth-teller of who we really are and gives us back to ourselves.  Christ reveals the original beauty of our creation, standing before us with a truth that challenges us where our lives have become fragmented and distorted, in the ways in which we are not true to ourselves, and in the times when our identity has been lost and shattered.

If the same folk who had him bound in leg irons and chains, and had placed him under guard… which he had broken and freed himself from… weren’t excited for him – it is the reminder to the rest of us to make way for those who have been healed.  They, after all, had known who he was, where he lived, and had devoted time and expense to control him.  People and communities learn to live with brokenness in others, they get used to it, they normalize it, they may isolate it, but for sure, they will go about their own business… their own lives… as long as it’s “over there” and out of mind.  This is what societies do, that is what we do, if we are honest.  We fill the prisons with such, offering no way back.  We institutionalize and we marginalize.  We keep the healed at a distance, an impediment to reintegration.  It’s just easier.  But Jesus crosses the sea and comes to our shore, healing and thus upsetting things, disturbing what has been accepted and challenging us to SEE people.

Let’s be honest, Jesus meets this man in the barren places of life and circumstance, an alternate reality of a man convinced his name is Legion, when Jesus knows otherwise,  It is because Jesus knows a truth:  THE truth about him that the man cannot know for himself, a truth that returns him to himself.  No wonder then that he is found by the crowd seated at the feet of Jesus, the posture Luke specifically uses for those who are more than just followers, but among the select group of disciples of Jesus.  So if the crowd asks Jesus to depart, he now appoints this healed man, as one of their own, to “declare” and to “KEEP. ON. DECLARING.” what GOD had done for him!


At some point in life, we may well know what it is to be Legion.  Some more than others.  It is our story, and yet there is that counter story of how our life was put back together, how we were given back ourselves, and how we were seated at the feet of Jesus.  I don’t know what in your life has shattered you, or caused you to say “I don’t know what has come over me.” Or, “I’m just not myself today.”  Anxiety-laden thoughts course through our minds with conflicting thoughts and voices, and we can lose our bearings. It is, as another has observed, “a place and time of separation, loneliness, and isolation.  We are exiled from ourselves and each other.”  I know when I have been there, life has been shattered, and I have felt like Legion.

It is to this very place Christ comes.  This is the Gospel story, and the call as discipleship when Jesus says: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

Let our grateful voices loom large as we proclaim the good news that Jesus has rescued all believers from chaos and to stand with others in their experience of being Legion!



“Lifted Up” (Trinity Sunday)

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 16 June 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Perhaps not one of my better ones, but such as it is… read on!


Letter to the Romans 5:1-5 (New Revised Standard Version)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Gospel of John 16:12-15 (New Revised Standard Version)

(Jesus) “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.



As noted by an Episcopalian priest and former lawyer [Marsh, see note at end of sermon], “try to define the Trinity and you end up with nonsensical math in which 1+1+1=1.  Or you hear bad and, most often, heretical analogies: God is like an egg and the three persons are the shell, the white, and the yolk of the egg.  The Trinity is like the three musketeers, all for one and one for all.  At best,” he writes, “we are left confused and at worst we decide this whole Trinitarian thing is outdated and irrelevant.  How can words ever describe or capture the beauty and mystery of three lives shared, given, and received?  How do you talk about three persons giving themselves to each other so completely that they live within one another, not losing themselves but finding their true and complete self?  Words fail. Some things, like the Trinity, cannot really be talked about.  They can only ever be experienced.”

In the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the Father and the Spirit and their relationship.  “It is not a lecture about the Trinity.  He does not describe what they are but rather, HOW they are…they are in complete relationship.  All they have is given, received, and shared.  Nothing is withheld.  Nothing is secret.  All that the Father has is Jesus’.  All that Jesus has is taken by the Spirit and declared to us.  We are included in the life and love of the Holy Trinity.  All that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have is being given and made available to us.  Nothing is withheld.  Nothing is secret.’


In just five verses, the reading from Romans this morning, stunningly brief given Paul’s usual expansiveness, he writes of God, of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit – not as an attempt to explain the full intricacies of each, but how the activities of each ensure the transformation of our lives.  In this we experience peace with God, through Jesus Christ, and God’s love poured out through the Holy Spirit.


But how do we put our minds around these concepts, ones that have challenged theologians over the centuries?  With a dose of humility, perhaps we should turn to the words of Jesus, when he lifted up a child and spoke of how children perceive the kingdom, saying “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 18:3-4]

No wonder then, I think of the boy, all of six years, who walked in by himself, while I was setting everything up for a morning devotional before VBS started.  It was the late 1980s and my church was supporting in partnership the VBS held down the road at the Methodist church.  At that tender age, everything shows on a child’s face, and his was especially downcast.  It seems he had done something wrong and upset his mother.  Miserable for hurting his mom’s feelings, he just could not be consoled.

Soon enough, the small sanctuary filled with kids and teachers.  I had set up an enormous ladder, with a block and tackle suspended at the top, between the legs of the ladder.  A rope went around it all and came to the floor where another block and tackle was hooked to a concrete block.  You know, those 80-punders, as opposed to the lighter weight cinder blocks.  And I spoke of how sometimes we think we’re on our own and try to solve things as if that is true.

I called the young fellow up and asked him to pick up that cinder block, by trying to lift it with that block and tackle that was hooked to it.  Like most boys, he put everything into it, after all, everyone was looking.  One corner finally lifted off the floor before he had to let it crash back.  He tried a second time and fared no better.  I noted that the block and tackle hooked to the concrete block was like us, and that’s how life works when we live as if we’re on our own.  We try.  We put everything into it, but sometimes the problem is too great for us and we just can’t send it flying.

Dejected, he started back toward his pew when I asked him to come back, and asked him to now pull on the rope, the one looping up around the other block and tackle at the top of the ladder.  He braced himself, thinking it would be like before, and then pulled with all his might.

The concrete block shot straight up into the air, a good three feet off the floor!

He stared at it, his mouth open, unable to comprehend how he had done such a thing.  He let it down and then pulled it into the air again, just to prove to himself it was no fluke.  I then explained how that ladder is kind of like God’s love – over all of us and all of Creation, and that Christ is like that block and tackle above.  In that moment I had a brain blip, quickly caught by one observant child who called out, “What about the rope?”  Before I could answer, from the other side of the sanctuary another child called out, “That’s the Holy Spirit!”

Kids understand, often better than we adults.  Jesus was right about that.

Paul says, “We boast (also translated as “rejoice” or “exalt”) in our HOPE of sharing God’s glory.”  The New Revised Standard text added “sharing” to the text to clarify what it means to hope in the glory of God, having peace with God through Jesus Christ.  I think that day, a young boy experienced that kind of boasting in the hope of sharing in God’s glory, as he went back to his seat glowing, the rest of the morning happy.  He still had it the next morning when he ran in the church to tell me his mom had forgiven him.

Yet, we have to realize that Romans doesn’t end with a “fairy tale” type “living happily ever after” ending.  Sin and suffering do remain a part of life, sometimes so acutely so that in chapter 8, Paul will reassure us that “nothing shall separate us from the love of God.”  The life of the justified is thus one that is a mix of peace, of hope, of suffering, and always of love.

I think this is an important point.  Because we can easily fall into the trap of thinking, when confronted with circumstances of suffering, that somehow it must always mean a spiritual failure on our part.  Sometimes, it is the sins of others.  Sometimes, well, there is just mystery.  It may be difficult for us to understand this, living in a society in which folks believe as long as they check all the boxes, they should expect to be treated fairly.  But doesn’t that fall apart when bad things happen to good people?

In Romans 8, Paul will say “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us” [8:18], as we rejoice not only in the glory of God but also in our sufferings. The message is not that we rejoice because of suffering, but rather we rejoice in the MIDST of suffering.  Suffering does not produce rejoicing, but neither can it end it.

What Paul is assuring us, is that the power to withstand is ours – because of the very work of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Even though we baptize in the name the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as has been done from the earliest days, and instructed in Matthew 28:19, explaining the fullness of the mystery that is the Trinity has humbled the greatest of theologians.  Maybe we just make it too hard, missing the language of peace, of hope, and of suffering that is far more concerned with God’s actions than with describing God’s essence, and glimpses of how God, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit interact with one another in order to act on our behalf:  Peace with God that comes about through Jesus Christ.  God’s love is poured out into human hearts through the Holy Spirit.  All given when we cannot act on our own behalf (as Paul writes in verse 6, “while we were still weak”) – that we may know the full expression of God, who creates us, redeems us, and sustains us.



For additional reading, I would suggest “What Is the Doctrine of the Trinity?,” by Matt Perman, 23 January 2006.  It make be accessed at:



Pastor’s Note:  “Life, Love, and Dancing – A Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity, John 16:12-15,” by Rev. Michael K. Marsh.  Dated 30 May 2010, accessed on 14 June 2019, at  https://interruptingthesilence.com/2010/05/30/life-love-and-dancing-a-sermon-for-the-feast-of-the-holy-trinity-john-1612-15/


Retirement Remarks of CDR Vinson W. Miller, CHC, USN (08 Sept 2017

I recently got to thinking about nearly two years ago, on 8 September, 2017, when I said goodbye to the Navy, my ceremony predating my terminal leave.  I did not have this blog when I was retiring, or I would have posted this back then, to thank those who couldn’t make it!   My focus was less the adventures (anybody that knows me, knows I have stories to tell!), but an occasion to express my gratitude for the many with whom I have shared 24 years of Naval Chaplaincy.  I started out with the toughest part, because I wanted it clear that the most important part of the journey was my family, and none of it would have been feasible without Julie, before moving onto my beloved “RPs” and shipmates who became a part of my life.  So with that, for those who were there and those who weren’t, I remain grateful for the blessing of your life being alongside mine as the interests of our Sailors and Marines were looked after.

Hampton, Virginia
11 June 2019



Captain McDaniel, Chaplains, RPs, shipmates, friends, and family, those of David Adams Memorial Chapel, Our Lady of Victory Catholic Chapel, and Commodore Levy Jewish Chapel – thank you for sharing in this celebration and rite of transition for my family and I.

When I graduated from seminary in 1987, my request of God was two-fold:  that wherever I ministered I would see one person’s life changed by my presence – for confirmation that I was in the place God intended, and secondly that I would make at least one lifetime friend in each place I have served – for my own health.  Your presence today is proof of how blessed I am; I thank you for allowing me to use this time to honor God, and to honor Julie, AJ and Ben.


This ceremony is far less about me and much more about you who have journeyed with my family and me during my Naval career.  No one makes it to 24 years in the Navy alone and without a lot of help along the way!


In July 1993, days before I was commissioned, I believed the detailer was serious when he asked me where I’d like to go and what kind of duty station.  I said a ship out of the East Coast.  In my mind, that meant Norfolk, not too far from our parents, a nice easy transition into the Navy.  However, I had not said WHICH east coast, and so minutes before Julie and I had to head over to our church for the start of Vacation Bible School, I called upstairs to Julie with the exciting news: “Honey, I got a carrier!”  She yelled down “Alright!”  I called back up, “It’s in Japan!”  She yelled back, “Not on your life!”  I told the detailer I’d call him back later, by which time Julie had talked with her Dad who in his own Naval career as a UDT officer in the early 1950s had deployed out of Yokosuka.  Julie said she was all in and I took the orders to what would become for us our other home.

Immediately initiated into the life of a Navy spouse, already possessing the required independent and resilient soul, Julie packed out the house after I left for chaplain’s school.  I should note here that each of the next three household goods packouts happened while I was deployed, all either to or from overseas and twice while Julie had pneumonia.  While I have been deployed she has had to buy cars, find housing, get the kids in new schools, and she’s even managed the household through a month without power and a house in chaos after Hurricane Isabel rolled through, with me none the wiser, because I was out of contact and in country in the Philippines with the Marines at the time.  I seriously owe you, Julie and the list just gets longer every year for all the ways I have experienced your support, and whatever credit I am due for what I have done as a chaplain, you and the kids have in so many ways quietly borne the real brunt of this life of service and sacrifice, making it possible for me to serve.  If the three most important decisions in my life have been to accept Christ, accept the call of ministry, and to marry Julie, then everything I have accomplished as a Navy Chaplain has had its roots in those very decisions.  I am forever indebted to you, Julie.  You are my best friend in life, my confidant and truth teller through all the years of me being a rather slow student!  The love of my life, I am grateful you have stuck it out with me for now 34 years.  And I am so very proud of you, AJ and Ben.  In all of this, we have marveled as you two have grown into such ethical, wise and grounded adults who truly care about people!

Starting out in this thing called the Navy, having deployed within days of graduating from chaplains school, I entrusted Julie and our then 2 ½ year old daughter AJ in the care of our friends and former church members, Stan and Annley, back here in Virginia.  They, along with Betty Lou and Fido, in June of 1991 had stood just outside the operating room to welcome her into the world as I rushed by with her to the awaiting ICU.  Later, new to Japan, by some miracle we found a house within 2 hours of looking, high up on Shonon Takatori and just down the street from my shipmate, friend and liberty buddy, Ray and his family.  Tina and Julie became fast friends and our kids too, which proved a godsend two years later when I left Julie on the pier just a couple days before Ben would be born, as the INDY had to make an emergent 5-month deployment from Japan to the Gulf.   It would be Tina who was Julie’s labor coach – all 35.5 hours of it, and she remains our son’s beloved “Aunt T” for good reason!  Adoptive aunts and uncles to our children, especially when they were young and in those first ten years in the Navy during which I was gone more a total of more than six years, whether on deployments, exercises, travel or whatever else – well, it made a huge difference knowing you were there.  We love you and are eternally grateful for your abiding friendship.

Wherever we landed overseas, my Mom, the late Rev. Mary Lou Taylor, was soon there to stay plugged in with the kids and to share in our adventure; she would have loved this ceremony and had something to talk about for weeks!  It seems strange to me that as of this year all of our parents are now gone, but are thankful that they were there as we kicked of this adventure as long as we had them.  My sister Adele and Julie’s sister Ann, who are here today, and their rather interesting husbands, have been the mainstay of family connection!  I am really glad you are here today.

Then there are those special friends, the ones that accrue over life and through various Naval assignments and keep one sane amid the drama and nonsense of military life.  Remember how I spoke of that favor I asked of God?  Well, a number of those very friends from SPECWAR to Navy Medicine to Marine Corps to shore installations are here today, some having driven or flown in from as far as Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio and even California.  Even my best friend from seminary days is here today!  When I was dating Julie she said to me “friends are the family we choose.”  She is right!  While I’m not sure who did the choosing, what a neat, loyal, and funny crew we are!  I love ya’ll, and our hope in the post-Navy era of our lives is to be able to focus more of our time locally and in our travels, on our friends.

I wanted today to specifically lift up my gratitude for the Religious Program Specialists, the other half of the Religious Ministry Team.  There is a reason I have listed in the program the names of RPs who I have served alongside and I wished to have an RP as one of my speakers today, thank you RP1 Malloy.  There are just so many ways it would have been impossible to have accomplished what I have through my various tours – without RPs.  RP1 Velasco in my first tour was my “Sea Daddy” when I reported aboard, teaching me what a junior officer and first tour chaplain needed to know to be effective.  RP2 Gaines had this amazing gift of spotting suicidal and/or depressed Sailors and bringing them to me, a gift of observation that I have continued through all my tours to appreciate and encourage among RPs, as those who triage people before they get to the chaplain.  I think about all the creative ways RPs have gotten things fixed, gear acquired or invented, chapels and field services rigged for services, or when I showed up to a Marine infantry battalion in May 2000, the main body gone, RP and I leaving in two days, and me without having been afforded the required CREST training for Sailors going to Marine units.  RP Youmans said “I’ll be your CREST” making sure I had everything I needed to go out the door, teaching me the Marine Corps culture on the fly and supporting me through a long, challenging deployment that was quickly followed by a second.  Then there was when we were half of a 4-man survival team in jungle warfare training, with the others an intel SSgt geek with little field craft experience and a Marine placed with me because he had some really serious mental health issues and awaiting discharge.  Unlike every other team, we ate well once ya’ll found how useful I was as bait for the habu snakes that wanted to attack me and I had to trust that one psych Marine with spiking them just a few feet from my legs.  No longer in the Navy and still beloved by our kids, 17 years have passed by and you, Jonathan, along with Christy and the boys are as much family as those are of blood, and in recent weeks you have been our mainstay through the retirement preps.  And here, at this chapel for the past two years, the blend of talents among the RPs has been nothing short of spectacular.  I would ask that all of those presently or in the past have served as RPs to please stand.

Then there are my colleagues in ministry, those who now or who have worn the cloth of our nation for being here today.  Chaplain Cain.  Kimberly, you and our RPs have done so much to take as much off of me the past month or so, freeing me as much as possible to prepare for retirement.  ENS Glenn Brooks, Chaplain Candidate, it has been a marvelous privilege to be a part of your journey.  Thank you for being here today, and I look forward to your commissioning as a Navy Chaplain!  A shout out to my chaplain school running mate, Phil Clark!  Chaplaincy really is an amazing opportunity to love people who might never have crossed the threshold of a place of worship.  Where else would we have an opportunity to readily befriend people across the religious spectrum, those of faith and no faith, the opportunity to reawaken faith in the injured and those who simply walked away from their faith, or to work in partnership with those of other faiths in order to care for our Sailors and Marines?  I am grateful for you, Rich, for your comments and welcoming me into the ranks of the retired.  We have shared an abiding friendship and faith, and you have been a safe, closed-mouth sounding board through some of the most personally and professionally challenging years of my career as a Navy Chaplain.  You have inspired me and I hope I have been as much help to our fellow chaplains as you have been to me.

Finally, my thanks to my fellow chaplains and friends who are a part of this program.  Chaplain Mason, Jeff – thank you for covering down on the MC position at the last.  Chaplain Rutan – Jim, thank you for your prayer.  Rabbi Litt – Gershon it has been a privilege to support your vision in caring for Sailors, I am honored you can do my benediction.  Senior Morgan – see, you finally weren’t the MC at a chapel event, thanks for piping me over the side.  My sideboys – Steve, Matt, Ryan, Cary and Jeremy – I am grateful for our years of friendship and your remarkable commitment as chaplains, and Chaplain Wiggins – all my prayers for what is your turn at being Command Chaplain for the world’s greatest naval base!  Knights of Columbus thank you for wanting to honor me today, it has been a joy to be of support to the Catholic community as much as our Protestant and Jewish communities here.  Captain McDaniel – I remain humbled and grateful for your support and friendship these past two years!


I end this where I started, naturally.  I cannot imagine having done any of this, without you, Julie, AJ and Ben.  I love each of you with my whole heart.  I am forever indebted to you for your sacrifices and support, but most of all your love.

Thank you.

PPT for WordPress



“What Does This Mean?” (A Pentecost Sermon)

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 09 June 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Like eating together builds relationships, stories knit us together – reminding us who we are and who we are to be.  AS those who claim Christ, it is to embody Christ in a very challenged world.  If anything witnesses Pentecost, it is we discipling others through our very lives’ example.  – Vinson

Book of Acts 2:1-21 (New Revised Standard Version)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”  But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.  No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.  Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’



In 1969, Mom and Dad flew out to the Disciples’ “General Assembly,” in Seattle, putting my 17-year old brother, Loren, in charge while they were gone.  It was a different time.  But even then, it probably wasn’t the best idea.  One night he went for a joyride from our village near Wilson all the way to Tarboro.  After all, there was a girl to be seen, one he had met at church camp that summer.  Having spotted her across the field, he gunned the car only to sink Mom’s 1967 Vista Cruiser station wagon in an unseen swamp, then had to find a tractor trailer driver to pull him out.  Mom always wondered why her car had some odd scratches and I always wondered why the car came back with mud in the door sills.  Mom was horrified when decades later, she learned the truth.  Other stories we have retold are of the life-informing hard experiences of life as a preacher’s kids, like the Saturday morning my brother Wendell and I spent cleaning up Klan literature and the remains of a burned cross in the parsonage yard – dad having made enemies.

When my sister and two brothers get together every so many years, many long-familiar tales are retold, our children often amused hearing them for the first time.  Sometimes new details are added.  Sometimes new tales are told, of what each of us did and got away with somehow.  Family storytelling of whatever kind has a way of knitting families together in common purpose, and isn’t that exactly what Luke is doing for us, in the Book of Acts, as he retells us the many family stories that ensured the formation of Christ’s church?


I had already been captivated by the verse, “What does this mean?,” asked by those present at Pentecost, when I crafted today’s bulletin a couple weeks ago.  Then, as one might surmise when spending three and a half days in the hospital last weekend, unplugged from my computer, not interested in TV – there was plenty of time to ponder that verse.  To be perfectly honest, I have always zoomed past those four words and focused on the whole “birthday of the Church” theme.  And yes, this IS the day we rightly think of the historic church as being born, equipped for its mission, emboldened to speak with authority to matters of life.  However, perhaps we miss in Luke’s words something that surely speaks to our own age – God’s embrace and acceptance of the diversity of people as inseparable from that which is Church.


Luke, a master storyteller, writes with an economy of words and every detail has meaning.  So in looking at verses, 5-11, what if Luke crafted this “table of nations” present that long-ago morning, in order to weaken the prevailing sense of divisiveness of who was in and who out, so that a new foundation might burst forth – a vision that transcends forms of identity without asking any to forsake their uniqueness?

In this larger vision, it would make sense then, that Luke’s list is a theological response to the apostles’ question in Acts 1:6: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  You may remember, Jesus’ response was rather oblique.  “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” [Acts 1:7-8].  Now that the Holy Spirit has indeed come – we find the apostles’ hopes for a renewed Israel to be stretched beyond their limited scope of theological vision.  First, there is the inclusion of the Medes and Elamites.  The Elamites were nearly wiped out by the Assyrians in 640 B.C.E. and eventually absorbed into the Parthenian Empire. The Median Empire entered into a political alliance with Babylon and was later absorbed into the empire rooted in Mesopotamia and ruled by Cyrus II – the Medes as a distinct ethnic group being extinct for over five-hundred years.  Yet, it was that the Parthenian, Medic, and Elamite regions, encompassing Sumaria and Northern Israel, which housed descendants of the ten tribes of Israel and members of the two tribes who did not return from exile.  Then, there is the inclusion of nations encompassing North Africa, Asia and Asia Minor, all the way to Rome.  I don’t think Luke’s intent was to be exhaustive, but to point to the broadening question of What does this mean?”

Well, for one thing, God isn’t drunk and neither are the followers present in a morning “breeze” unlike any other in which the Spirit was manifested.  Something new is taking place, says Peter, that God’s word through the prophet Joel, has been fulfilled:  “…I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” [Acts 2:17-18].  All flesh.  Not this or that.  All inclusive in a universal vision for the restoration of all people.

And here, I would suggest, is the pivotal verse from this story of our family, which is “Church.”  Having gathered with fellow Jews across the Mediterranean world, near the full expanse of the Roman Empire, “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting,” as Luke gets to the heart of it, Galileans were “speaking in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” – raising the question among the visitors: “…how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?[Acts 2:8]

“How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”

At first blush, it’s easy to think of this event as a reversal of the Tower of Babel story [Genesis 11:1-9], except there is no undoing the diversity of human languages as was precipitated by Babel.  This raises the question: Why would the Spirit enable everyone to hear the Gospel in their own language, instead of some common… universal… heavenly language? This was the thing I had thought so much about and I came to a similar conclusion as an intriguing article I came across in recent days.  In words far better than anything I could offer, Eric Barreto, Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, writes:

“…what happens at Pentecost. God, through the Spirit, chooses to meet us where we are: in the midst of a multitude of languages and experiences.  The Spirit translates the Gospel instantly into myriad languages.  If you think this is easy, then you have never tried learning a new language!  You don’t just substitute one word in one language for a corresponding word in another language.  Language is messy and intricate.  Language is rooted in a wider, more complex culture and way of thinking and living.  Even when we speak the same language, don’t we still have a hard time understanding one another?  Imagine then the miracle of Pentecost and what it means for us today.  God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not ask us to speak God’s language.  Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. God does not speak in a divine language beyond our comprehension.  At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God continues to speak in Spanish, Greek, Hindi and Chinese alike.  At Pentecost, God makes God’s choice clear.  God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of speaking different languages, eating different foods and living in different cultures.  That is good news indeed.”


So what if Pentecost, the movement of the Spirit upon all life, like the Spirit once moved upon the face of the deep in the Creation giving order to chaos, is about celebrating the wedding of our differences that surrenders none of our uniqueness?

What would that look like then, to be God’s change agents in a society struggling with its own list of divisions, one too often reflected among those bearing the name Christian – instead of being those imbibed with God’s Spirit?

What would it look like to have the insight of the children’s author Dr. Seuss in “The Sneetches,” with his telling of those with the “stars upon thars” and those without, chaos created by the merchants of societal divisiveness, and with only political partisanship profiting?  Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it? — as now, in our own age, while our environment dies, our children are poisoned, the stranger is jailed for seeking “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with the idea an American God only likes native-born citizens – as our nation corrupts God’s good gifts.

What would that look like then, given too often we have incorrectly heard Galatians 3:28 — as to what the reign of God ushers in?

Seeing “no longer Jew or Greek” – but for those born of every color and ethnic clan, we nevertheless ensured that our standard of love for one another wasn’t about mere tolerance, but the embrace of genuine acceptance?

Seeing “no longer slave or free” – yet in spite of the differences of class and status between us, we nevertheless ensured all had healthcare, a place to live, food in their belly, and hope to give their children?

Seeing “no longer male and female” – but that each person has been crafted by God and pronounced “good” by the word of God in the Book of Genesis, we nevertheless accepted one another in the love of Christ, be we male, female, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, intersexual, or trans?

What would that look like if, at last, we truly spoke the language that can be heard by every single child of God?  And, by so doing, we discover that the giftedness of Pentecost is about the destruction of privilege, inviting us to the heavenly table where differences are valued, accepted, and finally – are genuinely celebrated?

Perhaps no one has come closer in our lifetime, than when Martin Luther King, Jr, said:

“When this happens,

when we allow freedom to ring,

when we let it ring from every village

and every hamlet,

from every state and every city,

[THEN] we will be able to speed up that day when ALL of God’s children… will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual;

Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

May the church say, Amen!


Sermon Notes: Eric D. Barreto, “Acts 2:1-21: Think Differently About Difference,” 23 May 2012, accessed 05 Jun 2019, at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/acts-2-1-21-think-differently-about-difference_b_1539115


“Down by the Riverside”

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 26 May 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Not everything made it into the sermon, like the strong belief that Luke, the author of Acts, was the “man from Macedonia” seen in Paul’s dream – suggested by the change in pronouns in this passage to “we” from they in this text.  Nor did I go into any depth as to the joyful relationship Paul would have with the young church at Philippi.  So, as it is, here it is… -Vinson


Book of Acts 16:9-15

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.  When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.  We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[c] of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.  On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.  A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.  The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.  When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.



Who hasn’t gone on a trip?  Maybe a vacation to distant ports?  Maybe a visit to Jamestown?  Maybe just a route for a series of stops using the least amount of gas and time to get errands done?

But do trips go 100% the way we plan?

That hasn’t been my experience in life.  Plans rarely survive the first hours… whether it is the traffic, or a sudden phone call, or the line that’s too long, or the friend we run into?  There are just oh so many variables.

Who has not heard some variant of the saying that “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!”?  Not to hurt our feelings or frustrate us, but because we plan on the basis of what we know.  God simply knows all.  No wonder the Psalmist wisely concluded, in Psalm 16:9, that “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.”

And that’s the crux of the lesson from the Book of Acts this morning.  Paul had his plan, but as Luke writes the narrative “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them…”  Having instead gone to Troas, it is said that “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”


I’m actually VERY pro-planning — as my wife will attest, but I also have to recognize that as well-reasoned or as well-intentioned as any plan may be, we often encounter the proverbial wrench in the works!  And, when this happens, be it in minor details or larger events, we humans often struggle mightily with the uncertainty or uncontrollable nature of life.  When major parts of the plan go awry, we mere mortals push back, rant and rail, and can truly wrestle at times with the concept that God is in the business of changing our plans to His plan – though many times His plan will ultimately result in something much better than we ever dared hope for.


As we have made note of in a previous sermon on Acts, the narrator of the book, Luke, is never accidental in what he includes or excludes of the unfolding story of the Gospel as it spreads following the resurrection of our Lord.  Philippi is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.  It is a city of proud heritage, respected by the Romans.  Founded centuries before by Alexander the Great and named after his father, Philip, it has the major status of a being a Roman colony, and emulates this idea in its imperial presence.  Here, the Empire is powerful and popular, and the city IS the heart of the Empire in this corner of the world, a place that lived like an extension of Rome itself, intended to be an example of what Rome offered to the world.

Arriving in Philippi, Paul, Timothy and Silas go looking for the local synagogue, but the Jewish presence is so small, it apparently did not even have a Minyan – the minimum of 10 men – needed to say the prayers.  So, needless to say:  there exists no synagogue.  Instead, any Jews or God Fearers who happen to be in the town or passing through, apparently knew to meet down by the river on the Sabbath to pray.  They head down to the riverside, hoping to preach the gospel to what men are available.

But the plan keeps changing… there are no men either.

Instead, they find only women, with whom, we are told, they sat down and spoke.  That might not seem so odd to us, especially as we can look around here or at other congregations and women outnumber men.  They are also, typically, the ones getting most of the work done.  But for the hearers of the Book of Acts, with two strange men in town meeting with women, it would have been striking, even offensive.  Unrelated men and women simply didn’t mix, especially in a relaxed place down by a river.

Amid what now likely appears to Paul, Timothy and Silas be to a slowly revealing plan of God, we are told that “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to them; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.”  Referred to as a “God Fearers” – Lydia was not Jewish, but, along with some number of others, were so intrigued with the God the Jews worshipped that they lived their lives as if they were Jews.  Typically, most such God Fearers would have followed all the Jewish laws except for circumcision.  So right from the beginning of the story, Lydia is described in an unconventional way.  Like many around us today in our society, she knew of God, sought to live as much possible by what she knew to be right, and yet did not have that relationship with either Christ or the community of believers.  The funny thing is how this plan God has in mind, to plant the church in Philippi, isn’t centered on a local person.  Instead, Lydia is actually from some distance away – from a town well known for making the valued purple cloth in which she dealt.

Folks still like purple, but it was no small thing at the time as the most highly valued of colors in that age.  Producing the purple cloth took crushing thousands of mollusks – tiny shellfish – just to make enough dye to make a yard or two of purple cloth.  So purple cloth wasn’t just very expensive, it was worth its weight in silver.  And wearing purple?  It was a statement of status and wealth, even more that someone today carrying a Gucci handbag or wearing a Rolex watch.  Purple was THE power color.

And so she’s not only from elsewhere, but she is independent apparently – the head of her own household, with no man mentioned, and a person of means.  This woman is the person who opened her heart to the Lord, listening “eagerly to what was said by Paul.”  As a result, she and her whole household were baptized, and she invited Paul and Silas to come and stay with her – thus Lydia became known as the founder of the church at Philippi.

Looking back to a time when we have been led to believe that conventions demanded that women stay out of the public realm, this was simply NOT the case in the early church.  The Apostle Paul — who down through the centuries has been widely-quoted for his words to the Corinthian church as to women not speaking in church — in actual practice — PROMOTED the proclamation of the Gospel by  entering into all sorts of ministries that were being successfully led by women.  Lydia was just one of several women, named and unnamed, who established the first congregations in their homes.  Like Joanna and a number of female followers of Jesus during his ministry, these were women of means who saw to it that the church had what it needed to grow and flourish.

Unmistakably for Luke, this is the way upon which God planned the church to walk – to follow God’s call to reach across social, economic, cultural, and ethnic boundaries, and to seek opportunities to do God’s work in even the most unexpected places.  This puts before us the question that if the Spirit’s movement in Acts reaches across the lines, ought not our own mission paths reflect the same or even deeper enthusiasm?


At the outset, the movement that would be called Christianity FLOUTED normal conventions and DEFIED attempts to CONTROL the Spirit of Christ.  It was broadly and proudly inclusive and affirming of the worth of God’s children.  So it is that Paul and the others find themselves going where they didn’t expect and speaking to one not on their list.  Yet, here was the person and place that God would form not just any church – but the very one that attended directly to Paul and nursed his ministry in the many years to come.

What was that old thing about wearing purple?

Are we —  are YOU? — male or female, either young at heart or old enough to throw caution to the wind, to wear purple — with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit you?

Do you think you are ready, to make up for all those years of following the so-called rules, the limited and closely defined “expectations, all those admonitions to color ONLY INSIDE the lines?  Do you want to go out in your slippers in the rain, or pick the flowers in other people’s gardens, and learn to spit?



Well…… maybe you’re right; maybe you’re not young at heart enough yet or even old enough just yet. But maybe you ought to practice a little now? So people who know you are not too shocked and surprised when suddenly you are old, and start to wear purple.  Truthfully, what have we got to lose?

I want today to challenge you to truly LISTEN to the ways the Spirit of God is moving   IN  YOU.   It seems to me that it might just be high time to  take a chance together — like Paul and Silas — and mosey on down by the riverside!

Amen and Amen again!