“Thy Sea so Great, Our Boat so Small”

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*Sermon preached on Sunday, 24 June 2018 at First Christian Church of Hampton VA.  I was gifted with this little boat, made for me by one of our younger attendees while I was preaching.  Children

Gospel of Mark 4:35-41 (New Revised Standard Version)

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.  A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  He said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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INTRODUCTION 

It was the last Tank Landing Ship {“LST”}  in the Navy.

The “Fast Freddy” she was called, with not a small amount of sarcasm.

The USS FREDERICK was old as naval ships go, 35 hard years on her hull.  Based out of Pearl Harbor, Vietnam era frigates were kept nearby, “in mothballs” as we say, and cannibalized for parts just to keep her going.  It was getting harder all the time and this was to be her last voyage before transfer to the Mexican navy.

We had loaded up the entire battalion’s artillery pieces, all of our 5-ton trucks, HUMVEEs and anything else we would need, and departed on a cloudy day, sailing past the sunken ARIZONA on the way out of the harbor.

A few hours later, already battling heavy seas, all four engines failed.  One was brought back online after an hour, another the next day.

Up on the bridge, I watched as our bow dipped low and scooped up the sea, the water filling the deck, even as the flat-bottomed ship rolled side to side.

Back and forth she rolled.  Like a metronome on a piano, yawwing as far as 35 degrees before swinging back.

36 degrees or more would have started toward capsizing her.

It went like this for days.

The ship’s crew were fine.  My battalion’s Marines were altogether another matter.

Fit for anything except a tossing sea, they mistakenly thought they did not need to take their Dramamine until already sick.

The ship of steel groaned and so did they

They looked for deliverance, but none came until we pulled into San Diego.

When one looks at the reading from the Gospel of Mark, a similar plea for deliverance is made.  Following an exhausting day for Jesus, the disciples attempt to steer their craft across the small inland sea, no more than about eight miles at its widest… basically as far as we are as from Naval Station Norfolk.

But the steep sides of the mountains along the Sea of Galilee are known for sending wind and waves racing across it, creating chaotic squall conditions.  In the midst of these, a small fishing boat would be tempest tossed, the journey lengthened considerably.

Water comes over the rails and panic ensues.

Waking Jesus, what do the disciples shout?  “Do you not care?!”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Now really, is this about Jesus not caring, or is it something more?

FOR INSTANCE

A couple of things stand out to me in these, ever sparse words of Mark.

First, the scene itself is of water no longer respecting the boundaries of the boat’s rails, and washing over them.  Standing on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was a “great bronze sea” that remembered God’s creative act in restraining the sea from the land.  God gave it boundaries.  The flood let them loose and they were constrained once more, with God’s promise..  Right now, on a small scale, the boundaries seem violated and the disciples are frightened.

We may not be out on such a lake, a sea, the ocean, or in such a storm, but we know what it is to have threats to our well-being – physical and mental, body and soul.  There are illnesses, diseases, and disabilities.  There is danger on the highways.  “Afflictions, hardships, calamities,” as Paul says.  They are the human conditions, some brought upon ourselves, some brought upon us by others, and some we don’t know how happened.  Our sense of safety is shattered.  Our boundaries crossed.  Whatever the origin, it hurts and hurt can transform into fear.

This brings me to something that now retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in Washington on the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  Tutu spoke of how “Vulnerability is the essence of creaturehood,” adding that

God was there in the anguish of the moment, in the darkness, in the bewilderment, in the senselessness of it all.  God, Emmanuel, is still here.  God with you.  For God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, wiping away your tears, pouring balm on your wounded souls.  On that day, you wonderful people of this great country awoke to find that you… YOU! were fragile, you were vulnerable.  For so long bad things had happened to other people a long way away.

The disciples don’t wake Jesus to save him.

The disciples woke Jesus to save themselves.

They are afraid and fear draws a tight circle.  Fear has a way of drawing us back to ourselves, becoming about us.  A circle of exclusion.  It leaves out people.  It leaves out God.

In the words of a Breton, Massachusetts seaman’s prayer, a portion of which once adorned John F. Kennedy’s desk:

Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate
Will me befall

A circle of fear stops there.

A circle of love – which is faith expressed – takes us to the rest of that prayer.

Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.

Thy winds, O God, so strong,
So slight my sail.
How could I curb and bit them on the long
And saltry trail,
Unless Thy love were mightier than the wrath
Of all the tempests that beset my path?

Jesus wakes, rebukes the wind and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and in that moment, all is at rest again.  He handles the immediate issue, then asks them: “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  This moves the disciples away again from themselves to consider “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”

Faith, you see, is about getting out of our own skin, our own worldview.  It is stepping out and taking a look at life from a whole different perspective.

This got me to thinking about something I remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu saying a long time ago.  I met the man back in 1993 both when he spoke as a guest of our General Assembly, and at a local Disciples congregation for Sunday morning worship.  To be in his presence was to be near a bright light, one definitely not hidden under any bushel basket.  His joy could not be constrained.  In his Sunday sermon, Tutu made a powerful note of children, when speaking of his friend, Nelson Mandela, who had been released just a couple years before, imprisoned for 27 years after leading protests against apartheid in South Africa.

Tutu spoke about the drawings of children, and how during all those lonely years in internal exile, cut off from all visitors, kept in a windowless room, children had mailed Mandela drawings.

Crayon drawings.  Pencil drawings.  Ink drawings.

They had become not just like wallpaper in a windowless room, as kids drawings do to proud parents’ offices, but as Tutu said, they had become the spiritual “window” out into the world through which Mandela had seen the world, his solitude blessed and broken through the eyes of those children he had never met.

Children do that to us.  They bring us to their level, and we see things differently.

Tutu lifted up the response of Jesus when some Greeks came saying “We would see Jesus.”

He spoke about family.

Being family by the grace of God, not by our activity, but the Christ of the cross.

As he observed, “…in this family, there are no outsiders.  All, all are insiders.”

This is the consequence of the words of Jesus in response to those Greek visitors, for Jesus said of the Cross:  “…I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” [John 12:23].

Let’s think about this.

Not some.  All.

Those of color and those not.  Those of wealth and those of poverty.  Those able-bodied and those infirm.  Those of youth and those of age.  Those sound of mind and those troubled.  Those of every part of the political spectrum.  Those able to accept everybody and those who are racist.   Those who would separate children at the border and those who would race to rejoin families.  Those native born and those seeking refuge.

Said Tutu, “…it is a radical thing that Jesus says that we are family.  We belong.”  

Certainly “radical” is a word that has a charged meaning.  Tutu uses it in the sense of the Gospels… in the stepping completely outside the patterned norms and expectations.. immersing ourselves into the spirit-changing life of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), that goes from the Beatitudes, to being the salt that seasons an otherwise bitter society… to being a light that drives despair away… to loving “not just those who love you.”

Said Jesus, “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

Radical is emulating the Christ of the Gospels… here… in this place… in this community… among those we are comfortable with and those not.

It is why, Tutu says,

Sometimes we shocked them at home when we said, the Apartheid State President and I, whether we liked it or not, were brothers.  But the truth of the matter is that when Jesus says we all belong, there is a radicalness that we have not yet fathomed.  That we are members of one family.

It has had me thinking.

Just last Sunday, as we were talking about Father’s Day, our new young friend Karla told us about her family and what it means to her to be “family.”  I couldn’t hear it all, but I do remember her saying “In OUR family, we love, we forgive, we hug…A LOT!”  No doubt was on her face.

To be THAT certain of such inclusivity, of love and grace, this is the essence of what Jesus was talking about… and THEN taking it into every facet of our lives and how we influence our society in a meaningful, creative, grace-filling, love-overflowing way.

It is because of this radicalness of family that we set aside elders and deacons to provide compassionate and non-judgmental ministry to all whom this church seeks to serve, and still other dedicated servants in leadership to guide us in the deliberations and decisions moving forward.

It is because of this radicalness of family that we set aside camp leaders and youth to experience the special needs camping program that fosters maturity in faith.

It is because of this radicalness of family that THIS  DEDICATED  RADICAL family feeds those who come to the Welcome Table, extending respect, creating community, feeding bodies and souls with simple kindness.

It is this radicalness of family that stretches us…AS IT SHOULD!  Often, only when the water is spilling over the rails of our small boat amid a seemingly great sea, and we have looked to the Lord, do we see the changes needed.

In the midst of this, people come asking to see Jesus.  In our attitudes and behavior.  In hope, always.

And so the question before us is: how are we influencing society with the spirit of Christ in an age of fearfulness?

SO WHAT?

We are in a boat together, we and our society.

It’s been leaking for some time, but water sloshing across the deck is easy to ignore at first.  At least if it isn’t one’s own feet which are wet.  But the water is now coming over the sides in waves now and the water cannot be ignored.

The chaos cannot be ignored.

I am reminded of a prophetic story told by Desmond Tutu.  He spoke of two convicts shackled to one another that have escaped and fallen into a ditch of dirty water.  “One of them, said Tutu, “almost made it to the top, but can’t because his mate is still down there, and he’s shackled to him, and he slithers down.  The only way they can ever make it is up, up, up and out together.”

And so Tutu reminds us,

We are bound to one another.  We can be human only together.  We can be free only together.  We can be safe only together.  We can be prosperous only together.  And God cries out to you wonderful people in this incredible land, God says, “Please help me; please help me realize my dream that my children will wake up one day and know that they are family.

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes:  Other than remembrances of a sermon preached in the summer of 1993, in St. Louis, MO, as to Tutu’s insights I drew upon the sermon of Rev. Desmond Tutu, of 11 September 2002.  Accessed at https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-2002-09-11-000000/, on 21 June 2018.

Ethnic Cleansing on Our Borders?

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

It was 1999.  Serb Christians were engaged in “ethnic cleansing,” the slaughter and displacement of Muslims living in Kosovo.  At the time, I was the chaplain for the SEAL teams on the East Coast, and it meant traveling with platoons to the theater of operations, and returning with those rotating  out… helping them to process the awful side of their missions.  For some, whom I knew to be devout Christians, it had been painful to hunt down those who wore the ‘badge” of Christ, yet whose deeds were so evil, it had also been a just duty.

At one point in all of this, I spent a couple days near where my Great-Great-Grandfather Miller left Germany back in the early 1830s.  I walked around the town square in nearby Wittenberg, looking upon the very administrative office he had gone to before leaving Germany forever.  It had been savagely bombed in World War II.  The cathedral had been rebuilt, leaving intact the burn lines, identifying how far down the building had been bombed.  Strafing marks pockmarked the tower.  I walked around it contemplating as the words “not one stone left upon another” ruminated through my mind.  Then I saw it.  A jumble of granite blocks, ivy creeping around them, with a simple brass marker.  My German was at least rusty then, as I read Matthew 24:2 engraved in brass, with date of the bombing.  In that southern German province, the hotbed of the Nazi movement, I thought about distant kin and what deeds they had likely done, especially when I returned to walk the cobbled streets and sleep in the barracks of a nearby former German base, one built by Jewish slaves who were afterwards taken to a nearby concentration camp and murdered.  It was a humbling and disconcerting experience, a reminder of the close proximity between oneself and the utter depravity of humanity.

In the echoes of such, I find no joy in addressing this, but Christians dare not be silent nor consensual in the presence of wrong, including that by the state.  There are some pragmatic things before us, and I ask you to pray and to reflect, but it cannot stop there.  There are multiple ways to support better treatment for  these families who have come… desperately hopeful …to our borders: those seeking asylum waiting sometimes for weeks in the hot sun at legal portals as well as those caught crossing illegally seeking better opportunity, employment, or simply immediate, and then, long-term safety.  As with most hot button issues, immigration is not simply a black and white situation, but a long, convoluted history bearing multiple shades of gray: among them — economics, racism, misogyny, violence, fear, religious oppression, and the like.  Meaningful reformation of our immigration system will take time, care, compromise, and willing hearts.  The discussions are long past due, yet humane decisions are direly required.  In the meantime, I urge you all to:

*Read the statement of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and become a signatory. https://disciples.org/resources/justice/immigration/family-separations/

*Know your legislative districts and elected officials.  Contact them.  Write.  Call.  Email.  Visit.

*Support peaceful protest, which — like your vote — is not simply a right, but also a privilege.  There is a protest scheduled for Norfolk, in front of Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement (ICE) on June 30th, as well as one in Washington DC in front the White House.  A Peninsula based rally is in the works as well for that date, though plans have not yet been finalized.

*Donate.  There are church and civil agencies working directly in support of the families, and financial support is welcomed.  For instance, Week of Compassion is accepting designated online gifts to provide assistance.  https://docgeneralassembly.webconnex.com/weekofcompassion

*Listen and educate yourselves.  All politics is local, and most of us have more areas of agreement on the rights and wrongs of policy than we do areas of disagreement.  Respectful discussion and listening to understand, not argue, are skills we all need to enhance, for SILENCE is NOT a feature of the walk in Christ; certainly not when the “least of these” are mistreated.  I implore you… as people of faith, we must actively seek solutions.

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I never thought that I would find myself addressing this kind of issue in the nation I so much love, one I served faithfully for 24 years as a Naval Chaplain.  Yet, here I am.  If we are to be good citizens of the United States, we who are citizens of the eternal Kingdom of God, then holding up the dignity of people is essential.  I realize this is a tension point for folk, and disagreement will take place.  But let’s be honest with ourselves, we are no better than how it is that we treat those who cannot defend themselves.  Sending people back is one thing, but breaking up families, caging people, denying rights, denigrating and dehumanizing as is being done… is a whole other matter.  We need to hear the prophets… and allow the love of Christ to radiate through us.  Blessings, Vinson

Seeds of Empathy, Hearts of Compassion

Presentation3Mark 4:26-34 New Revised Standard Version

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

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SERMON OF 17 JUNE 2018

INTRODUCTION

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

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

Actually, tree limbs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

We dare not look away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one Methodist minister has written,

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

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

He asks us to contemplate:

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

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

We lift up the sanctity of families—all families.

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

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

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

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

Amen!

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HOW CAN YOU HELP?

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

Make your voice heard.  

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

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

Where Faith Stops

1-samuel-8-whatever-just-give-us-a-king-1080x480
*Sermon of Sunday, June 10, 2018. Scripture is ageless, speaking to every age, although it is still how the prophetic word can at times speak powerfully to a particular time in which we as “church” are called to serve and to witness as a community.  Sometimes it will “ouch” when its inescapable word calls us to wrestle with its relevance, but such stretching and accountability prospers our walk. -Vinson

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, they choose to lean on their own insight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God knows this, but the people will not hear.

Instead, they enthrone a king.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal happiness and success associated only with what one owns.

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

 

Finding One’s Voice

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

 Did you hear it?

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

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

 FOR INSTANCE

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

“What is indifference?

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

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

Of course,

he adds,

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

Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction….

In a way, says Wiesel,

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

Indifference elicits no response.  Indifference is not a response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

What are we to make of all of this?

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

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

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

Amen.

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

God, in the Existential Crisis: A Memorial Day Sermon

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

Memorial Day.

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

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