Curiosity… The Disciple’s Vital Skill

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

GOSPEL OF JOHN 6:1-21

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

Very.

Sometimes annoyingly so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

It’s charades indeed!

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

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

But what is their real need?

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

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

But what is their real need?

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

We are disciples, after all.  Students.

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

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

Why would Jesus do that?

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

They are dutiful, but missing something.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t you find that interesting?

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

What’s his response?

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

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

Could they simply be about assurance of his care?

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

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

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

B.C. Before Church, so to speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

Amen.

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

At the Intersection of Coming & Going

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

We both needed a break.

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

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

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

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

We pulled over.

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

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

We fight it.

And circumstances intrude, don’t they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We used to take the whole day.

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

The disciples certainly earned a break.

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately for the disciples, rest got deferred.

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

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

It is humanity connecting to humanity.

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

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

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

Our world is a hectic place.

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

But, says Jesus, “Come away.”

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

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

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

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

Faithfulness in An Unfaithful Age

Presentation4
08 Jul 2018 – Preached at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Sorry, really late posting it! -Vinson

The Gospel of Mark 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.   On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.  Then he went about among the villages teaching.  He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.  He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.  He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.   If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.  They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

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INTRODUCTION

She was a young woman.  A petty officer, one of just a small handful of women in that command.  Who would believe her?

It was one of four local commands that fell under my group and thus for which I was the chaplain.  The command had just completed its required “Equal Opportunity” survey.

They are a big deal in the Navy, taking a pulse on what’s working, what’s not, where there are potential issues as to discriminatory behavior and practices along the lines of race, gender, and religion.

They are an opportunity to have a truth-telling through anonymously completed surveys.

They are also how command leadership is held accountable for morale, as morale will always impact the mission – good or bad.

However, the senior enlisted for the command had cornered this sailor before she completed her survey.  Making it clear what outcome he wanted, he had coerced her into not reporting issues of harassment of females.

She knew even more:  He had doctored the data that was reported to my commodore.

Tortured about what had happened, she came to me.  Not wanting to be a witness, not -allowing me to speak to my commodore or anyone else about what she had observed at one of his commands.  My trolling efforts to find someone else willing to go on the record, well it was really a tightly controlled command, and there wasn’t anything I could clearly point to, had I gone to the Commodore – unless she released me to speak.

She was the key.

If she spoke, I knew, others would come forward.

It was nearly three months before she finally agreed to allow me to make a report, releasing me from privilege.

I went immediately to my Commodore.

Furious that this command’s commander had been recently promoted to captain, the Commodore was clear that he wouldn’t have allowed the promotion, had he known – because what had been done with the survey had been done with his blessing.  He would advance no farther in the Navy, and his command master chief petty officer was forced to retire.

The ship was righted, but only because of the moral agony of one sailor over what she encountered.

Born of her identify as a Christ follower, her voice had emerged to finally speak truth to power.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

In the face of fear, finding one’s voice is difficult.  In the experience of being beloved by God, that same voice is empowered.  If being beloved by God IS the very nature of the Gospel, and Jesus clearly sends forth his disciples into the world, how do we then see ourselves as the love-bearers of Jesus Christ amid our present society?

FOR INSTANCE

In reflecting upon the Gospel reading for today, perhaps the best description of what transpired in the synagogue are the now century-old words of an Englishman’s commentary.  “It is possible,” he wrote, “that what the Evangelist means to suggest is that they were half amazed, half annoyed.  They are half inclined to marvel and believe, but this very half belief makes them the more irritated and incredulous.”

Like the proverbial “cup half empty,” they have closed their hearts to the possible in Jesus Christ, and thus as Mark starkly wrote, Jesus “could do no deed of power there.”

It has led me to think about the insight of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and re-read his 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail.  Said King:

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed.  In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.  Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’  But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man.  Small in number, they -were big in commitment… By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

King’s prophetic word is just as relevant now.

Jesus did not send the twelve out that long-ago day to merely be a thermometer amid the ills of society.  “they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.  They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”  At other times “shaking the dust” from their feet, not having received even the most basic hospitality of having their feet washed free of dust, but kept at a distance.

They knew the temperature.

The disciples mission was to be God’s thermostat, to be effective in addressing the spiritual sickness that ailed people, through the Good News of Jesus Christ, being that “leaven in the lump” which challenges and transforms… to created God’s beloved and expansive community, as the Kingdom of God broke into human history.

If the manner of their lives and witness of the ancient church, as Dr. King noted, so impacted society that the widespread and immoral practice in the empire of killing newborns that weren’t sons or weren’t perfect ended, then what do we have to say now to an expression of this ancient spiritual sickness?

We cannot turn away from the painful facts that the administration now acknowledges it separated perhaps 3,000 children from their parents not even certain how many because they haven’t bothered to track kids properly and are now having to use DNA to match parents to kids because of an inhumane policy… a policy that has caged children in warehouses lit 24-hours a day, scattering them all over the US with an uncertain screening process for those ultimately taking kids, and even forcing toddler’s to represent themselves in what is little more than a kangaroo court with ever fewer protections and Department of “Justice” mandated outcomes.

What are our words and our deeds to change the temperature, as Christ’s witnesses within our society?

If the manner of their lives and witness of the ancient church, as Dr. King noted, so impacted society that the widespread and immoral practice in the empire of gladiatorial games ended, people no longer set upon each other in order to satiate the most base part of humanity in order to ensure the empire’s control of society, then what do we have to say now to the present expression of this ancient spiritual sickness?

We cannot turn away from the painful facts that the administration’s means of control is apparently to set people against one another in a reality TV kind of painfulness.  It has reminded me of the 1960’s book Games People Play in which one of the games is entitled “Let’s You and Him Fight” – an emotional gladiatorial game with only one victor.  The victor isn’t one of those in the ring, but the one who has created the savage contest itself.  Let’s be honest, the game that is unfolding before us is very much about race.  It should be no surprise that we see the rise of white nationalism, a new blend of the Klan, Nazis, and white supremacists, with somewhere between 9 and 17 white supremacists and far-right militia leaders even now running for House and Senate seats, governorships, and state legislatures.  Or, that we see weekly news reports of folks misusing the police, in the words of one commentator, as though they are contemporary slave catchers.  Using the energy of fear, the endgame is to dishonor and disempower those of color.

What are our words and our deeds to change the temperature, as Christ’s witnesses within our society?

As one minister has written in recent days,

These are historic days and they will be recorded…  These will be marked as the moments we succumbed to a thousand small assaults on decency—or when we decided to stop the bleeding altogether… this… abomination.

It is an abandonment of empathy, a rejection of personal liberty, a human rights violation, a squandering of radiant lives.

There is nothing redemptive or life-giving in it.

The only question remaining is if (we’re) okay with it—and (we) get to answer for (ourselves), by (our) movement or (our) inaction….

Step out of the cloistered place of (our) private despair, and into a jacked-up world that (we) can alter by showing up.  Use (our) gifts and (our) influence and (our) breath and (our) hands…

We uncomfortably find ourselves in a time when it is necessary to find our courage, express our voice, speak of how our faith in Jesus directs our sense of justice remembering that a just law is, in the words of Dr. King:

An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.  To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.  Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all of this?

We are not so far removed from the actual events being perpetrated as to be immune from it.  King was right when he said:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states… Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

And so in such a time as this, it is to take risk, if we are to fully participate in the creation of the beloved community beyond this microcosm of this congregation and our Welcome Table.

Of this time we are challenged to:

Affirm life, speak truth, defend the vulnerable, call out injustices—and gladly brave the criticisms and the wounds you sustain in doing it, knowing that they are a small price to pay…

And so,

We need to speak and write and work and protest, and do all the things we’ve been waiting for someone else to do….

We may leave someone “half amazed, half annoyed,” not unlike what our Lord encountered, but the way of Jesus is not just an invitation to the feast, but to carry that very feast-ly invitation to where true repentance lies – not just in individual life, but in the heart of our society.

AMEN!

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Pastor’s Notes:
Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” 16 April 1963.  Accessed on 06 Jul 2018, at:  http://www.massresistance.org/docs/gen/09a/mlk_day/birmingham_jail.html
Rev. Michelle Jean-Mary, “Whether They Hear or Refuse to Hear,” 8 Jul 2012.  Accessed 06 Jul 2018, at:  https://www.fhcpresb.org/worship-music/sermon-archives/2012/07/whether-they-hear-or-refuse-to-hear-ezekiel-2-1-7-mark-6-1-6/
Dr. C.G. Monefiore, “The Synoptic Gospels, Edited with an Introduction and a Commentary.  London:  MacMillan and Company, 1927, pg 118.  Downloadable book accessed on 01 Jul 2018, at https://archive.org/stream/EpistlesMacknightJ1984.rOpts/GospelsSynoptic%20Montefiore%201927_djvu.txt

What Makes Sermons Tick?

“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, NRSV)

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I grew up listening to sermons.  How could I not?  Dad was my pastor and there was NO missing church!  At some point, I got interested as a kid, in what Dad was saying, how he was saying it, whether it got my attention, but most of all – whether it made me think.  I remember how on Saturdays that Dad would pile all kinds of books on his bed, stretch out, and read for hours.  Then nap.  He would get up, scratch out his notes on 1 ½ inch wide strips of paper, tuck them in his Bible and Sunday would happen.   I’d probably sleep too long and while I can read my handwriting just as I could Dad’s, it takes a lot of effort!  I much prefer my notes with LARGE printed font and I’ve always written my sermons, as a way for me to both reflect upon every word… and to have copies that I can share with the deaf and those who want to do more study (which is why I post my sermons).  Nor do I preach in the same style as Dad, even though he usually held my interest (for the first 15 minutes).  Dad gave me something to think about, and I cherished that, along with his deep affinity for the Word, not clipping verses to fit an agenda (i.e. prooftexting), but ensuring that what was offered had integrity with the larger text and its context.

The Word is amazing, prophetic, healing… We don’t need to twist it and shouldn’t.  We just have to trust it, approaching it with awe and wonder.

I’ve had some conversations about sermons of late.  I’ll be honest, my “style” has evolved over the decades, and where in my youth I thought of pronouncements, I made a major shift over the past 16-18 years.  Already moving that direction, in 2006-2007 I went through a year of clinical training and the spillover of that experience was to elevate my sense of curiosity as a central skill.  Curiosity holds no judgment.  It offers no conclusion.  It ponders.  It stays open, inviting discussion – for everyone who listens to a sermon is a theologian, even if not in formal training.  We each wrestle with the Word… its meaning… its application… its mystery.  In this encounter is the sharpening of mind and spirit.  It is also an experience of very intentional trust.  We’re all adults.  We are all Christians.  We are all invited to hold the Word, ponder, wrestle, even kindly argue about it with each other.  That’s how we stretch and grow, lest our spiritual muscles needed for life in this world – or they atrophy  I think this is one of the best things of our heritage as members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as the founders insight and intent.

At some point, back around 2002 or so, I started thinking about an old TV show, “Dragnet,” and how the two detectives had such different styles of getting a case solved – as a team.  Jack Webb would carefully align every single fact (“Just the facts, ma’am/sir” was his refrain!) while Harry Morgan would start telling a story in noticing some pattern – which drove Jack Webb crazy, but his intuition was often crucial.  Those two types sit in our pews and sermons somehow have to reach them both… engage us both.  As I have always been more of a “narrative” preacher, Harry Morgan made sense to me, but I weave in the concrete words that work for the Jack Webbs’ in the pews.  It is a finding a way to bring together the narrative writing style of the Gospel of John with the factually descriptive verse of the Gospel of Mark (read them side by side and you will see their difference).

That time I spent in clinical training that I mentioned, sharpened this style, and deepened me in the process.  I began to see things I had not seen before, even as I drew in the “exegesis” into that narrative – the word meanings, historical and religious context, allied texts, and what others wiser than me have lifted up in their commentaries.  It’s hard sometimes, because there can be so much that I end up setting aside – both in the interest of time and to keep the sermon focused.  Sometimes, I find sermons painful… as the Word drags me into places I would not choose, leaves me ambivalent when I want an A-B-C answer, and wears me out while I seek clarity of what it has to say “now.”  But, I imagine the disciples of Jesus must have felt that way at times as they learned in his presence!

Now you may have noticed, there usually is some type of story leading off.  Usually the whole thing is not told at that point, but rather it runs parallel to the text, giving it a relatable feel, pulling us into the text, before I go into why I am raising a particular point.  No, I don’t do the 2-point sermons I was taught in seminary by Dr. Dick White, nor classic 3-point sermons.  Mine are 1-point, with a lot of elaboration in the main body.  Then I move into a “so what” portion.  If you notice, often there are questions, an incomplete story, something that lingers….  This is intentional, because at this point the listener is invited to become a theologian in the days ahead… to wrestle with what has been heard… to mingle it with one’s own life story and observations… and to hopefully walk out with something that is “portable” enough to chew on over coming days.  Sunday worship should travel with us, after all.

What I am saying is that sermons are our partnership.  A meeting place between pastor, listeners, the Holy Spirit, and our sacred texts.  We stand in the same place, at the same level.  We are all students in this meeting place of curiosity, of wrestling, of personal application – be it one’s own life, our congregation, our community, and/or our nation.  This seems to be, after all, what it is to be a disciple following in the steps of Jesus.  It is how, ultimately, we are blessed with far more than we can ask or think.

Blessings,

Rev. Vinson Miller, Pastor

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Again, after 35 years of ministry, I remain a student of the process of each part of ministry.  Anytime I think I have really mastered something, I am humbled… and shown something new.  So it never gets dull!  I am grateful to my ever-patient bride who typically “proofs” my sermons.  She is my most honest critic and best friend.  She will spot what may not make sense and ask me questions.  That helps!  It also means she gets to listen to it twice, so a special shout out to Julie!

OK, I shared this earlier this week in our bi-weekly church newsletter.  So if you read it before, that’s where you did.  🙂

Jesus of the Margins

mark 5.21-43*Sermon preached on Sunday, 01 July 2018 at First Christian Church of Hampton VA. – Vinson

Gospel of Mark 5:21-43 (New Revised Standard Version)

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.  Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”  So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.   Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.  She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”  Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.  Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”  And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”  He looked all around to see who had done it.  But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.  He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”  While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?”  But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”  He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.  When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.  When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep?  The child is not dead but sleeping.”  And they laughed at him.  Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.   He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!”  And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.  He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

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INTRODUCTION

He was up in years. Moving toward 90, this old farmer.

Not a member of my congregation, but he called up the church one day and asked if I’d come see him.  He indicated that he didn’t think God would want him in the building, but he wanted to talk.

In that crossroads, folks knew each other.  It was good and bad.  To be known can open doors or just as easily close them.

He lived a few miles from the church, but he was known.

Well, not to me.  To me he was simply a man who wanted to talk.

I didn’t know his history before we met.  There can be something freeing about that, I think, to be a student of people without already formed opinions.

He had become reflective.  A hard-bitten man, he was anything but a smooth talker.  There was directness in his speech.  Of his life’s course, he was unsparing.  A path taken out of a bitter youth, he had become his father’s son, a life he admitted to be absent of a generous heart, a grudge-holder and unkind to many.

Decades before he been married and had a daughter who hadn’t had much to do with him.  Who could blame her, he said.

When he had called the church, he really didn’t think I would come see him.  There had been no church connection, though he had attended my church as a small child, nearly 80 years had passed.  But it was his reputation.  He knew it.  It was his prison, as he saw himself this way and he knew that everyone else did too.

The imprisonment of himself had to come to an end, but how?

WHY I BRING THIS UP

In the reading of the Gospel of Mark, we hear of a different kind of scenario.  But in a sense, whether it is one’s own actions or things beyond one’s control, the man I once knew or the woman Jesus encountered, the matter at hand is how the Gospel touches upon what are the same notes of isolation and rejection familiar to all who live on the margins.

FOR INSTANCE

And so, Jesus steps ashore.

I am certain that after the adventure they had crossing the Sea of Galilee, the disciples were delighted.  Having experienced the authority of Jesus amid wind and wave, asking themselves “who is this… “ they now encounter this crowd on a mission.

Everyone there knows what is about to happen.  They think.

We are talking about a principal leader in the community, and it is his daughter that has a death-dealing fever.  At 12 years of age, strange as it sounds to our modern ears when the lifespan isn’t 35, but in the mid-70s, it would be like her being a 17-20 year-old.  Soon she would be eligible for marriage.  She was in the inside circle of the community, and she was dying.

The crowd parts, as Jairus approaches and pleads for Jesus’ assistance.

The crowd presses against them, as they walk towards Jairus’ home.

Interrupted by a touch, a gift of healing Jesus did not command, but was taken from him, accompanied by no plea.

Sometimes people do that.  The lessen they have learned in life is that they will be turned away if they ask, so they don’t.  People don’t fear rejection absent of some element of trauma.

The woman had snuck into the crowd, unseen in the commotion.  We do not know her name, but everything else about her…  How she had tried all of the doctors’ many remedies.  Nothing had worked.  How her resources are gone.  Nothing left to her but a desperate act.  How that act risked moving her even further outside the circle of community.

Mark, who writes in a just-the-facts manner, speaks of a 12-year old child in need of healing, the daughter of Jairus, while also speaking of a woman having bled for 12 years.  The gospel writer leaves it to us to connect the dots, but I think it no coincidence this echo of 12 years.

It is not unreasonable to speculate.  Never healed from birthing her daughter, she would have remained for all those years in the “Red Tent” away from husband and family.  If she had economic means, it may indicate she was on her own, her dowry returned to her in a divorce and now spent.

What is certain is that she is considered unclean in the ceremonial Law of Moses.  She would have been in the outside loop of the community, and in the context of that day this meant:

12 years of medical misery, without solution.

12 years unable to go through the required rite of purification.

12 years unable to participate in worship, because she was unclean.

12 years unable to be with her family, as the Law prescribed.

12 years of exile to what was not her home.

12 years of watching other women come and go in a matter of days, from the Red Tent, but always being the one remaining behind.

12 years in which no one could touch her, hug her, risking their own contamination.

In hearing these words, we must wonder who we encounter that’s too sad, too afraid, too burned by humanity – who hesitate to readily meet our gaze and have their humanity acknowledged.

In hearing those words, we must open our eyes to those whom our society has pushed so far to the margins that they have become in some sense – untouchable.  Alive, but not connected.  Human, but not welcomed.

Not wanting to slow Jesus down, but seeing a last ditch chance to enter back into the community… to no longer be outside, but inside… to be whole and reconnected, the woman interrupts the steps of Jesus.  If she just touched the hem… the frills that decorated the bottom of the garment worn by Jesus.

Not expecting him to stop, but experiencing his looking around with what can best be translated as a “glare,” she stepped forth, as Jesus now intentionally touched her, with the affirming word: “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

The 12-year exile was over.

Bringing the woman into the center, just as a messenger delivers the news that Jesus had taken too long, the girl is dead and she who had been at the center of the community moved outside for the 12-year old growing cold was now unclean.  For her, it was in the darkness of death, of isolation, until she received Jesus’ healing touch and restoration to life.

And this is the upside down nature of the Kingdom of God.  Those on the outer margins brought into the center of the community while the elite and privileged experience the death of that status.  We forget this is how God works His justice and mercy.  It is the Jubilee embodied in Christ.

The man I got to know over the span of a couple weeks had lived life like it was a ledger, and all things were transactional.  Quid pro quo.  You do this, I do that.  Such thinking has come to dominate our nation in too many ways.  In religion and in governance.  Trampling down the least of these, as seen as having nothing of consequence to offer.  In this man, there was no hiding left, as he accepted the forgiveness of Christ and teared up.  He had nothing to give back and it just threw him.  That how it is when one actually embraces Christ.  It isn’t business as usual.

We realized that he wasn’t going to make it into the doors of the church to be baptized anytime soon.  His was expected to be a long stay and so I arranged for us to use a shower room in the hospital.  When I arrived, things had changed overnight for much worse.  “Preacher,” he asked, “can you baptize me now?”

A nurse slipped me a bottle of water, put a plastic sheet under his head on the gurney as he was being taken for emergency surgery.  As we moved down the hallway, I asked him if he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, poured water over his forehead, and seconds later I saw him disappear into the operating suite.  He would never regain consciousness and by evening I would be holding his hand as he passed into eternity.

I said we would give him a church funeral.  I heard grumblings.  Didn’t I know how bad a man he had been?  Yes, but that was past.  A man thought of as unclean.  At the front of the sanctuary?  He didn’t deserve a church funeral, it was said by some.  That was for folks who had all the credentials, it was implied.

We did it anyway.

Writes the Rev. Robin Meyers in Spiritual Defiance, people have not fled churches “because they lost their deep hunger for a spiritual connection and participation in authentic faith communities.  Rather, they are fleeing because so many churches now seem bereft of the very spirit that birthed them in the first place…  the spirit will move with or without us.   A disciple,” he writes, “knows joy and clarity only by doing the gospel.” [p.105]

It has been said that “The longest journey a person can ever undertake is the trip between the head and the heart.  Christianity’s answer is not a better roadmap or a new interpretation.  It is the incarnation.” [p. 55]

When his body was brought in, something happened.  We were confronted with living in the realm of God.

Did we really believe in forgiveness, or was it an act?

Did we really accept people, or was that for pretend?

Did we really think the Gospel was for everybody, or just those that made us comfortable?

A friend of a friend has said it simply:  “We must choose.  We must choose between right and wrong.  We must choose between light and darkness.  We must choose between love and indifference.  We must chose between mercy and cruelty.  We must choose between truth and lies.  We must choose between integrity and hypocrisy.  We must choose between inclusion and bigotry.  We must choose between justice and injustice…. WE MUST CHOOSE.”

SO WHAT?

Everything we are dealing with as a society comes down to such choices.  It always has, but there are seasons that bring this into sharper relief and wrestling with the meaningfulness of following Jesus much more intensely.  We are in such a season, without a doubt.

Perhaps this is why the prophetic words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer resonate more deeply now.  Not many years before he was imprisoned by Hitler, he wrote: “Christianity preaches the infinite worth of that which is seemingly worthless and the infinite worthlessness of that which is so seemingly valued.“ It is to, in his words, “learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

In such discipleship of Jesus, we discover the authentic Gospel.

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes:  It is interesting that Jarius is mentioned by name, as that tends to be an indicator that he had a role within the post-resurrection community centered in Christ.  As for my conjecture about the connection between the girl of 12 years and the woman bleeding of 12 years, I think such detail in the always sparse Mark, makes for a reasonable mother-daughter connection.  But, there is, of course, nothing that confirms this.  I’ve been reading Rev. Robin Meyer’s Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.  Directed toward clergy, it’s quite challenging in its prophetic word and spot on for 2018.  The Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotes, I looked up, although I have several of his books.