No Strings!

luke 6b*Sermon preached on 04 February 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  The lesson from Luke has such familiarity it really requires one to slow down in reading the words of Jesus – there is that much to hear.  We’ve had a couple of tough weeks as a church, so yeah… I kept it a bit lighter in the opening. -Vinson

Gospel of Luke 6:27-38 (New Revised Standard Version)

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.  “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

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INTRODUCTION

In some of his favorite verses from what he calls the “Book of Contortions,” a Baptist minister lifts up a long list of supposed scriptures which simply don’t exist – except in non-Biblical literature – and their actual  roots.  I’ve pulled a few of them.

“God helps those who help themselves.”  Hate to tell you but this is from Greek mythology, an Aesop’s fable “Hercules and the Waggoner” written sometime between 620 to 564 BC.  It’s about how a man’s wagon got stuck in mud and he prayed for Hercules to help.  When Hercules appeared, he said, “Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel.”  The moral given was “The gods help them that help themselves.”  We probably know it because Benjamin Franklin included it in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, but it sure wasn’t talking about our God.

“Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be”  Shakespeare wrote that in Hamlet, with Polonius giving this advice to Laertes.  You’d be amazed at how many sayings comes out of Shakespeare that are mistaken as scripture.

“This too shall pass.”  While there are several verses in the Bible reminding us our lives and, indeed, heaven and earth will pass away, such as in Matthew 24:35, it’s actually a misinterpretation of a line from “The Lament of Doer,” an Old English poem.  When the poet is fired he recalls how several Germanic mythological figures went through troubled times, and each refrain ends with “that passed away, so may this.”

“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Does it help to be clean?  Sure, but I’d point out that Jesus expressed more concern about the sin in our hearts than the dirt on our hands, if we read Matthew 7:18-23.  Even if we think it’s buried among all the rules in Exodus and Leviticus, it originated as an ancient Babylonian and Hebrew proverb, one that would become popular during the Victorian era, in no small part because of John Wesley.

Of course, my personal favorite that isn’t part of this or any other minister’s list, but is what one kinda cranky gentleman would say to me on many a Sunday back in the 1980’s when I arrived at my student ministry church.  He’d look at me and say “The Bible says you’re to shave before you come into God’s temple.”  Needless to say, I had a beard, pretty much like the one I have now… uh… without all the gray… but as I could not recall such a passage, one Sunday I finally had to admit my Biblical ignorance when asked him where that was written.  He said it was when David shaved.  Of course, David had just committed murder and adultery and did so as a sign of his repentance, not to fulfill any “thou shalt shave thy facial hair” commandment.  That’s when I thought about asking if I should do other things that David had done, like dancing before the Ark and losing his clothes in the process – but I successfully kept my thoughts and tongue to myself, much to Julie’s relief!

WHY I BRING THIS UP

All humor and anecdotes aside, Luke forces us to consider what scriptures actually say as to how we are to behave in relationship to one another – in and outside the fellowship.  Luke compels us to hold Jesus’ words in our hands and in our minds, even as he brings to our attention the blunt questions Jesus puts to those who seek after him as to what makes us so different in doing for others as we would have them do unto us.

FOR INSTANCE

Now, most scholars consider Luke to have been written somewhere around 65 AD, plus or minus a few years, since Paul was noted as imprisoned during the narrative in Luke’s companion Book of Acts, while Jerusalem had yet to be destroyed by the Romans.  Already there were elements of conflict:  within the early church as Paul’s letters clearly testify, in the society of which they were a part, in churches not yet cleanly separated from Judaism, and in the early years of being persecuted by Roman authorities.  Luke reasonably presupposes situations of conflict will confront the followers of Jesus because of our beliefs, and wisely shares the words of the Lord to equip us in the face of these.

It has been pointed that that in the Hellenistic world in which Jesus lived and Luke wrote, relationships were typically viewed as reciprocal.  If one behaved generously towards another, it was with the expectation that at some point in the future, such generosity would be returned.  Favors extended were favors expected.  Love given was love expected.  Kindness shared was kindness expected.  It reminds me a bit of when we lived out in a neighborhood of Yokohoma, Japan, when any gift received from a Japanese neighbor meant one had to return a gift of equal or greater value.  If it was greater, it might mean they would have to get a more expensive gift in return.  If it was lesser, it could be viewed as an insult.

Jesus questions such a way of being in three clear statements amid this passage.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.”

“If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.”

“If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.”

You see, this would have made sense to those with means, while the Gospel is concerned with those of little or no means, economically, socially, and yes – relationally.  That’s why there is that emphatic modifier in the Gospel when Jesus said “BUT…” before going on to describe how the Kingdom of God is different.

There are no strings.

There is no quid pro quo.

There is only being of grace… a new way of being in the world, one in which we imitate God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  It isn’t a whole new thought in God’s word, as evidenced in Hosea chapter 11, where God wrestled with God’s own hurt, before saying:

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender
. [Hosea 11:8]

Why?  In the 9th verse, God says:  “for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”  God remembered His identity, that He is the Creator and the Creator can do nothing but love His creatures.  God cannot be any other way.  In Christ, we witness this, in and through the Cross.  It isn’t the same as approving of any and all behaviors or anything else, but the knowing who one is as a being — and thus going on to behave without conditions.  It is God’s strategy, not a sentiment, one that combats attitude, utterance, and abuse.  Unlike the eros kind of romantic love or the philia kind of friendship love, this is agape love – a love which has nothing to do with merit, only the choice of who one is in relationship to others.

And that’s what it comes down to, Jesus is inviting us into living relationally, not transactionally.  It is deciding who we are and whose we are, amid a world that can throw a lot at us.  It’s to follow Jesus, to reflect God’s gracious love in him… even to the undeserved.  Such grace is the only way change will actually happen amid God’s creation.  It is the only way to break the cycle of damage, and to lay claim to a different life.

In short, if you want to live in a world that has the qualities of the Kingdom of God, then treat other people in Kingdom-like ways… even with the unlovable.  It’s what makes us different, or should.  It certainly is what catches attention, to “love (our) enemies, (to) do good to those who hate (us, to) bless those who curse (us, to) pray for those who abuse (us),” or to simply do to others as you would have them do to you in the absence of any anticipated return.  Just to do, because of who our being is.

Full disclosure:  it’s not necessarily easy.  More often it isn’t.  It doesn’t mean there aren’t ways in which we have to maintain appropriate healthy boundaries.  But, it is claiming who are really are, just as much as God claimed himself in Hosea, because in such hard times – that is as much the challenge, remembering who we are.

I suppose this is why I have found myself at times reminded of a dear friend, a woman who was an elder at a church 30 years ago when I served over in Matthews, and who, years later, was an adopted grandmother to our kids when I took an assignment in Hawaii and there she was!  There had been this one Sunday when all the lay folk did the service and Pluma gave a message.  It was about when she had stood in one of those miserably long lines at Christmastime.  An item needed to be exchanged and there weren’t enough clerks, and things were complicated, and the line just wasn’t moving, and people were stressing because time was slipping away and they had places to go and things to buy.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

It wasn’t just time slipping away, the cheer had been replaced with grumbling, under the breath swear words, and pretty much bah humbug.  Pluma found herself getting caught up in the feeling until she remembered who she was, not who the other folk were, and stopped to just think about and pray love only for the woman right in front of her who was all stressed out.  The line didn’t move, but after about five minutes of internal prayer, she noticed the woman’s shoulders shifted and she turned around smiling to chat with Pluma, who kept chatting while then focusing her prayer on the person in front of the woman.  The line didn’t move but the same thing happened again.  Even though over the next almost hour, the line moved very slowly, the entire line changed over 20 minutes to become the spirit of the season, not the spirit of unhappiness.  The line wasn’t any faster.  Stuff still needed to be done.  But relationships had changed, the experience of the day was transformed.  A quiet and unspoken gift had been given over and over, without expectation, and yet things changed.

SO WHAT?

We don’t always run across people who insult us, that left check phrase, nor curse us or abuse us, but we all run across folk who are stressed… folk who’ve lost sight of their better nature… folk who may be distant from God, but certainly are from others… Sometimes it sucks us in, and sometimes that is not a far path.  Truth is, we don’t have a clue as to the full nature of others’ lives and whether we are right or wrong or halfway between as to our assumptions, but one thing is true:  we are called by Jesus to be different inside and outside, to be something without price.

We may have different means, just as those we come across, but the one currency we can all spend as readily as Monopoly money is our attitude and our prayers, to do good for them… to speak graciously… to pray… to seek that God would change us as much as we would hope God will change them.

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes:  Jon Davis.  “What are some of the most misquoted Bible verses?”  Dated 06 August 2016, accessed on 22 February 2019 at:  https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-of-the-most-misquoted-Bible-verses

Celebration of Life for Pam Goode

Memorial Service of 18 February 2019, held at First Christian Church

Pamela “Pam” L. Goode

(1950-2019)

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The Book of Job 12:1-3, 7-13 (Common English Version)

Job said to his friends: You think you are so great, with all the answers.  But I know as much as you do, and so does everyone else.

If you want to learn, then go and ask the wild animals and the birds, the flowers and the fish.  Any of them can tell you what the Lord has done.  Every living creature is in the hands of God.  We hear with our ears, taste with our tongues, and gain some wisdom from those who have lived a long time. But God is the real source of wisdom and strength.

* Other readings for the service:  I John 4:7-16 and John 14:18-28 *

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INTRODUCTION

C.S Lewis, the author of so many books, married a woman he likened to having a spirit like an Amazon.  A woman of fearless intellect, overflowing joy, and deep faith, she introduced him, a man in his 50s by then, to a life he had not found in all of his scholarship.  Then in too short order, his joy was gone, and his recovery became jottings, which became a journal, and then a book called “A Grief Observed.”

As we emerge day by day, from the shock of Pam departing this life, I returned to my yellowed copy, remembering Lewis’ words now so oddly familiar:

“I think I am beginning to understand why grief looks like suspense.  It comes from the frustrations of so many impulses that had become habitual.  Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had [her] for their object.  Now their target is gone.  I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string; then I remember and have to lay the bow down.  So many roads had thought to (her),  I set out on one of them.  But now there’s an impassible frontier-post across it.  So many roads once; now so many cul de sac.” [p. 57]

We, says Lewis, “…think of this as love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid-career or a flower with his head unluckily snapped off – something truncated…”  Yet this very experience of love, Lewis says,

 “…is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. ([If) we are ‘taken out of ourselves by the loved one while she is here.  Then comes the tragic figure of the dance in which we must learn to be still taken out of ourselves… to love the very Her, and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrows, or our relief from sorrow, or our own love.”

 It was only then, he wrote, did he find the most “…remarkable thing….she seems to meet me everywhere… an unobtrusive but massive sense that she is …just as much as ever…” [p.59-60]

WHY I BRING THIS UP

In the journey of a mere week, we may have only begun to glimpse this wisdom from a fellow sufferer, as we slowly emerge from our own sense of shock.  But, we do meet Pam everywhere already, I think, if we but start where Job started, when he said to his friends

“If you want to learn then go and ask the wild animals and the birds, the flowers and the fish.  Any of them can tell you what the Lord has done.  Every living creature is in the hands of God.  We hear with our ears, taste with our tongues, and gain some wisdom from those who have lived a long time.  But God is the real source of wisdom and strength.”

FOR INSTANCE

I think Pam would have been a really good friend to Job, given her gift of compassion, but also in sharing this kindred sensitivity to life and God’s wisdom evident in all its forms.  It’s the kind of sensitivity I’ve often observed among those who have transformed whatever suffering they themselves have experienced in life into this really magical form of awareness, kindness, empathy, and celebration of others; a sensitivity that inevitably ranges across God’s creation from plants, to insects, to wild animals, to pets, and to people – all the while seeking nothing in return.  Whether it was to sit in the library every week so she could work on cards for various folk, as an elder of our church and as a friend who formed a larger family of her heart, Pam just looked for ways to bring comfort and to bring joy, while being good at whatever she did, jumping in wherever needed, seeing everything through to completion, never taking shortcuts, and… if anyone else did, well… they just might find a little Post-It note!

So it was that not long after my call to this congregation, Pam came to me asking that we make a bigger deal about birthdays and anniversaries within our church.  It’s not like she didn’t already have plenty to do, as an Elder or Financial Secretary, or whatever needed handling.  Typically, Pam identified an unmet need, as she pointed out how to me how we have a number of folk who live alone with no one to celebrate their special days.  Thus, the first Sundays became this festival of culinary delights, every time a grand and unique cake of some theme, with decorations transforming the Narthex.  It morphed into a remarkable event, with Taylor as her helper on Saturday evenings in setting everything up.  It was no different the last Sunday that Pam was among us: a Valentine’s Day theme on the 3rd, and something for the kids to do.  Only a few months back she said she wanted to transfer everything from our usual after church fellowship in the Narthex, to the Fellowship Hall, because she realized how much longer folks might stick around if there were tables and chairs, affording our scattered congregation an opportunity to deepen friendships in extended conversation.  Pam was just this remarkable conductor of parties, of celebrating each life, holding each life dear, with an expansive sense of family – all the while, keeping the focus on others, not herself.

It was hardly something confined to here in this church; she did this everywhere she worked or volunteered.  I expect it was even the norm when she was working as a Navy budget analyst during her years of service as a GS employee with Navy and Marine Corps commands, or with the VFW.  But, I am certain it was the case over at the Virginia Living Museum – where she was both a long-time volunteer with something over 1,000 hours, and having been a part-time employee, starting out in the Volunteer Department, before moving onto Guest Services, and then Membership.  She never forgot a birthday or a milestone for anyone once learned, and found a way to be everywhere in the museum, conveying so much in few words and gentle smile.  For instance, one volunteer wrote to me saying that she walked into work this year, thinking no one remembered her birthday until she went into her office.  “There was Pam with birthday balloons she (had)… snuck into the museum,” in spite of an anti-balloon policy, with a… “if I didn’t say anything she wouldn’t either… “and a birthday card.  She was that kind of person.  She wanted everyone to feel special and loved.”

Even vultures.

Pam, it seems, developed a special relationship with these misunderstood birds, over at the museum.   She just didn’t leave anyone or anything out of her love.

In the same way of kindness, outside her home raccoons found dog chow, deer found corn, and feral cats found cat chow.  That was Pam.  She got what most folk will move past, that larger understanding of God’s design, whether working with native plants, or being a member of the “Frog Watch” or volunteering as a “Monarch Mano” in the rearing, tagging and releasing of monarch butterflies used at the museum to teach visitors and students about life cycles, migration and conservation.  She celebrated the release of her first monarch on September 22nd of 2016, and it wasn’t long before she was raising them in her own yard, a point of an early conversation between us.  Pam had even bigger plans, not long ago mentioning her interest in becoming a Master Naturalist.

In words that could have as easily been written by St. Francis, and certainly were evidenced in Pam, the late Henri Nouwen wrote of the call to appreciate that all the animals and all created things are part of God’s beloved family with us.

“When we think of oceans and mountains, forests and deserts, trees, plants and animals, the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the galaxies, as God’s creation, waiting eagerly to be ‘brought into the same glorious freedom as the children of God’ (as written in Romans 8:21), we can only stand in awe of God’s majesty and God’s all-embracing plan of salvation.  It is not just we, human beings, who wait for salvation in the midst of our suffering; all of creation groans and moans with us longing to reach its full freedom.  In this way we are indeed brothers and sisters not only of all other men and women in the world but also of all that surrounds us… we have to love the fields full of wheat, the snowcapped mountains, the roaring seas, the wild and tame animals, the huge redwoods, and the little daisies. Everything in creation belongs, with us, to the large family of God.”

Some people need few words to convey much, and Pam had a magical warmth in her eyes that was my first clue as to her spirit.  A spirit I learned was utterly no nonsense when she had thoughts or questions, in the way of those who have grown up in a military family and then worked for the military herself.  Taylor picked up on that on their first date, the matchmaking having taken place when a former minister of our congregation called her up on behalf of Taylor, she had a bit of mirth in telling me one day.  I have no doubt Pam enjoyed music, but a first date being at the opera was something of a non-start!  Yet, humor aside, she was so proud of you, Taylor.

Something I first noticed about people back when I was a young man, was how they talk about their mates.  She made sure I saw your gifts as an artist, some of which hang here in our building, and telling me of your pole-vaulting records, and more.  You took each other on an adventure in life, one none of us saw an end to, she with a passion for God’s creation in every expression and you with your art, music, and athletics – each inviting the other into the world of the other.  As straight-forward as I always experienced Pam, she was ever clear about her thinking.  She loved you.  She loved and adored the children and the grandchildren.  She luxuriated in the family you all shared with her and in the joy and fun and opportunity to nourish and teach and share herself and her love of God’s creation with all of you.  She talked repeatedly about her grandchildren in the butterfly garden and always bragged on each one of you… and she did so with her characteristic tenderness, enthusiasm, and wonder.

SO WHAT?

In the journey through and beyond grief that lies ahead, the insight of C.S. Lewis in his own transition offers us counsel:  “I see that only a little time ago I was greatly concerned about my memory of (her) and how false it might become.  For some reason – (and) the merciful good sense of God is the only (reason) one I can think of – I have stopped bothering about this.  And the remarkable thing is that since…. She seems to meet me everywhere…. A sort of unobtrusive but massive sense that she is, just as much as ever, a fact (and a joy) to be taken into account.”  [p. 59-60]

This woman, this joy — whom all of you invited into your lives — was so filled with gratitude to live and love and feel cherished amongst you.  There is no mistaking that Pam’s gift of self will live on through you and ALL who loved her.

Thanks be to God, for indeed, we will ever meet Pam everywhere!

Amen!

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Pastoral Prayer:  In words more than we can pen to paper or form on our lips, we give you praise, O God, for the light that Pam brought into our lives.  For her sense of awe and wonder at your creative work, inviting us to see through her eyes.  For her merriment in noticing the moments of our lives, and leaving none out of her love.  For her faith in you, one lived out in service with an eye towards including the stranger and remembering the forgotten.  For who Pam is, not just was, direct in word and faithful in deed.  Ever a student of your works, O God, she did indeed gain wisdom and strength from you, every bit as much as she ask the wild animals and the birds, the flowers and the fish of what you have done for each of us.  Grace now Taylor with your word and inspiration, even as you sustain him in the journey of healing, hold close hold Pam’s brothers James and Bruce, and the family she wed into that became her own – Jamey and Jody, Justin, Kaelee, Madison, Jason, and Carson.  Grace her church family, museum family, neighbors, and each who were drawn by Pam’s love into joy.  Temper the pain we feel now, with the larger memories, and the hope to which we are called, for you indeed call us each by name and we are yours, now and forever in Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Sermon Notes:  C..S. Lewis.  A Grief Observed.  NY:  Bantam Books, 1976 (pages 57, 59-60), and Henri Nouwen Society.  “Daily Meditation from ‘Bread for the Journey’ by Henri Nouwen,” 1997.  Accessed on 15 February 2019 at https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/being-sisters-and-brothers-of-nature/

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The family requests in lieu of flowers, gifts of love sent to: 

First Christian Church,  1458 Todds Lane,  Hampton, VA 23666

Virginia Living Museum, 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News, VA 23601

 

Healing on the “Level Ground”

Luke6b.jpg*Preached on 17 February 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  This was a tough Sunday for us, coming on the heels of the unexpected death of a beloved church member and the day before her memorial service.  Dealing with grief should be a natural part of the Christian life, but unfortunately our uncomfortableness with suffering in the American culture has cut off the needed conversation over the years across our communities – even though we worship not just a resurrected Lord, but the same one who was crucified, died and was entombed.  This sermon was intended to equip the congregation to walk through the experience, addressing that which the memorial service would not.  I hope it of value to you. -Vinson

Gospel of Luke 6:17-26 (New Revised Standard Version)

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.  Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.  “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation  “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

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INTRODUCTION

Luke is really a masterful storyteller, albeit different from John’s prose, his words intentionally chosen with a logical eye that tells of God’s purposefulness in Jesus.  In recounting how people had gathered “from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon,” Jews and Gentiles alike, Luke paints a picture of the inclusivity of God’s kingdom.  There is no distinction made in who is worthy of God’s compassion — no boundaries, no tribalism: native born and immigrant alike share in the word of salvation, in the healing of Christ.  Indeed, unlike in Matthew [chapters 5-7] where this takes place with Jesus teaching on the side of the mount like Moses sharing God’s word at Mt Sinai, Luke places Jesus on “level ground.”  This is no typo, nor needless detail.  Luke wants to tell us something with the use of the descriptive word “level.” It’s a word often used in the Old Testament and among the peoples of the Mideast, to refer to places of disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and yes – of mourning.  Jesus has brought the Kingdom of God, Luke tells us, into such a level place – because that’s the place where people are found in hurt.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

In the place within our lives where things don’t go well, Jesus comes to heal.  Where there is suffering, Jesus makes no distinction; God’s grace is for everyone who seeks his face.  As the text unfolds the question becomes, “How do we manifest the values and practices of the Realm in the midst of the level places of life?

FOR INSTANCE

With this in mind, there are those singular moments of clarity amid life when we do come to a new reality as to our relationship with God, ourselves, and all others.  Moments when we move beyond the words we confessed at baptism, and we truly place ourselves and others, into God’s love.  That would seem easy, but I’ve been thinking this past week, perhaps like many of us of how to process the absence of Pam.  A vibrant life.  A friend.  A devoted member of our congregation.  Gone.  Suddenly.  Unexpectedly.  It is the proverbial elephant in the room and if we cannot speak of it here in the sanctuary, then where?  Thus, we find ourselves in a place we would not have chosen – on that “level place” associated with sorrows, a place that nevertheless is where we meet the Lord and find his healing.

If there is one observation I have had over the years of ministry, it is that while we “preach Christ crucified,” as Paul repeatedly put it, I haven’t found that we do all that well addressing how to deal with death, especially when it swiftly comes and we aren’t prepared.  It got me to thinking about years ago, when I was studying under John James and Russell Friedman, on grief recovery, how they noted that, “In our formative years, an overwhelming emphasis is placed on learning how to acquire things in order to make life successful and happy.”  Let’s face it, even our Declaration of Independence has that phrase “the pursuit of happiness.”   “In early childhood,” they write, “we try to acquire our parents’ praise.  Later we try to acquire toys… by being good.  We try to earn high grades in school in order to gain approval.  We try to look attractive to our peers so we’ll be accepted.  This process of learning how to acquire objects and attention continues into our adult lives.”  But, as they noted,

“While we have learned much about acquiring things, we have precious little accurate information on what to do when we lose them.  Loss is both inevitable and, too often, unpredictable.  In spite of these truths, we receive no formal training in how to respond to events that are guaranteed to happen and sure to cause pain and disruption.  We are even advised not to learn about dealing with loss – or at the very least, not to talk about it.

How often have we heard, or perhaps spoken:  “What’s done is done.”  “You have to move on.”  Or, “Don’t burden others with your feelings?” Or, in my family, “Don’t cry”?

This is what Rabbi Harold Kushner got at in his seminal work When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writing:

“All we can say to someone at a time like that is that vulnerability to death is one of the given conditions of life.  We can’t explain it any more than we can explain life itself.  We can’t control it, or sometimes even postpone it.  All we can do it try to rise beyond the question ‘why did it happen?’ and begin to ask the question ‘what do I do now that it has happened?’” [p.71]

In short, how do we sit with ourselves, how do we sit with others in that “level place” of hurt, as people gathered to hear and to be healed by Christ?

It was in my years serving as an ICU/ER chaplain at the University of Kentucky, an exposure to so much joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy, healing and loss, that I realized that we had reduced the Book of Job, a book all about suffering, to a description rather than an insight in how to help each other through the tough spots.  When Job asked “Why is God doing this to me?” his friends responded with their heads – by giving a theological answer.  But when one is hurting, the question is a cry of pain – and it seeks an answer from the heart, not the head.  So what was sought wasn’t theology, but empathy and yes – sympathy.  Job wanted the reassurance he was a good person and that what was happening was indeed both tragic and unfair.

As Kushner notes, it’s “hard to know what to say to a person who has been struck by tragedy, but it is easier to know what not to say.  Anything critical of the mourner…  Anything which tries to minimize the mourner’s pain…  Anything which asks the mourner to disguise or reject his (or her) feelings… ” [p.89]  Put simply, what’s needed isn’t usually advice; it will have its time and place.  What’s needed foremost is compassion – the experience that others feel the pain one has, echoing the words of the psalmist who sang, “By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our harps” [Psalm 137:1-2].”   If, as the psalmist says they don’t know how to “sing the Lord’s song” in this foreign land, this foreign experience, this “level place” in which they find themselves – there is a “we” to the experience, a sharing of presence.

Like all tragedies, there is a natural tendency to remember other experiences, as one finds one’s way through this foreign land.  I suppose this is why I have found myself remembering a mother whose 5-year old son was near death.  He was an interesting child, possessing that larger wisdom of life that children have, when we adults find ourselves lost.  Just as I put my hand to the door of his room to enter in, I heard him say to his mom “The angels are here,” and asking her to let him go.  She was so bound in her sorrow, she could not speak, and so I walked out to a consult room for a moment.  Who could blame her for her silence?  Yet, in the silence, Job came to mind and his own silence through so much before finally confronting God, and so I asked her to pretend I was God and scream at me.  She could not.  I repeated it again.  No, she said.  The third time she screamed, this searing, weeping cry that I can still hear – and then something shifted in her as she immediately began to talk about what was happening and walked herself through all the decisions, as I stood a silent witness.  I had no advice to give and she sought none, because in such a place, advice isn’t what’s needed, just simply being a witness to another’s hurt.  That really is all any of us want.  She was ready, she suddenly said, and we went back.  This mother gave her son permission to go and shared her words of love for him.  He gave her thanks and words of love, and immediately passed.

The memory remains precious to me, a reminder that sometimes people simply need permission to be where they are – to be angry, to cry, to even scream.  They need this more, writes Kushner, than “friends who would urge (one) to be an example of patience and piety to others.”  [p.90]  But, if you peruse the Book of Job, you will find, that his friends do get two things truly right.  They came, and presence matters, far more than words.  And, they listened, as they sat with him for several days saying nothing, while Job poured out his heart.  Most of the time, there really is no great thing to be done – the meaningful thing is just being present amid the suffering, and to listen – whether to words or to silence.  That’s what it means to meet in “the level place,” where Jesus did his ministry.

Finally, there is the matter of prayer.  What do we pray for in such a time?  Here, I think the story of Jacob, from the Book of Genesis, offers great insight, as Jacob offers two prayers to God when he is, quite frankly, scared.  The first is found in Genesis 28:20-22, where he says “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”Basically, let’s cut a deal.  You feed and clothe me and keep me safe, and I’ll do xyz for you; prayer being totally transactional.  But, 20 years later, a whole lot wiser, Jacob offers a very different prayer in Genesis 32:9-12, saying:

O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups.  Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.  But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’” 

There is no currency in which God can be paid; Jacob simply says, “God, I have no claims on You and nothing to offer You.”  He simply asks God to help make him less afraid of what he must face – by being present at his side so that whatever comes, he can handle it, because he won’t be alone.  Prayer assures us that we won’t be abandoned, nor alone.  It reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves, in the kingdom of God, offering us hope, courage, and a future.

SO WHAT?

Last Sunday brought us to a “level place” we were not expecting, as news spread about Pam, and the challenging days since have been for many of us a time of reflection, of simply processing the news, and of quiet conversations about the hole in our hearts.  I will say that for all the death and grief I’ve experienced and witnessed in my life, personally and as a minister, I know I am grateful to be a part of this church family because if the hurt is deep it’s because the love for one another among you is also deep.  Pam cherished you and celebrated you, and made it clear to others outside our fellowship how much she loved this congregation and felt loved.  Her quiet and humble witness among us and her dedication to her church family will never be forgotten.  She bequeathed a piece of her spirit to each of us that we may carry her with us until we meet again.  May God be present with each of us in the days and weeks ahead as we go forth to continue her legacy of love and service, to minister to her loved ones and to one another.  Thanks be to God for her life and for this family.

Thanks be to God and may his peace attend us all.

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes:  Harold S. Kushner.  When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  NY: Schocken Books, 1981.

In the Deep Water

luke 5*Sermon preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 10 February 2019.  Discipleship takes us into many circumstances, not always of our choosing.  Yet, always – provision is made for us and the community centered in Jesus. – Vinson

Gospel of Luke 5:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.  He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore.  Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”  When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.  So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them.  And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.  But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”  When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

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INTRODUCTION

It was 2003 and our Marine Expeditionary Unit was moving toward the end of our deployment, as my ship, the FORT MCHENRY and her sister ship pulled into Darwin, Australia for a few days of rest.  Some tours were available, so I decided to take a sportsfishing trip along with some of my Marines.  There’s not much better than a day of fishing.  We dreamed of landing some spectacular fish native to the land “down under,” starting off with our guide and heading up the Adelaide River.  The hours passed, as the cool morning gave way to a noonday blistering sun.  In spite of our guide’s best efforts, not one of us had a bite on our lines and our sports fishermen tour was looking like an epic failure.  Bummed, we decided to pull close to shore and eat our lunch, and in boredom tied chicken bones to our lines to see if there were catfish around – which they were in abundance as we pulled in beauties far bigger than anything over in the fish tank at Hampton’s Bass Pro Shop.

Then my line was hit really hard and our boat was dragged slowly out into the middle of the river.  It was THE big one, I thought as the braided nylon line held and for a moment I wondered about the size of the catfish just as the surface broke.  Instead, it was a saltwater crocodile that had found its way up the freshwater river!  Spinning in the water, the 13-foot croc tried to snap the line while the guide yelled for me to cut it.  Croc and guide would have been happy had I done so, but I had a croc and a boatload of Marines looking on – so, the last thing I was going to do was walk away from a fight.  The battle went on for over 45 minutes, and a couple of times one of my guys had to take over my rod as my muscles spasmed.  Our boat continued to be dragged along, until one last time I brought the croc to the surface and pulled it close to the boat, with the guide now clearly wondering about the sanity of us Americans more than how that crocodile had made its way up the river.  It thrashed in the water, then spun over and over until finally the line snapped and it disappeared.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Fishing has its understood rules, and they generally work.  The time of day.  The place in the water, along shore or not.  The types of bait.  The kind of lines or nets.  We know this.  So did those about to become disciples of Jesus.  But sometimes, the Gospel calls us beyond the proverbial “tried and true” with a counter-intuitive word to leave the shallows for deep water.

FOR INSTANCE

Imagine being tired, like Peter and the others.  You’ve tried everything in your experience that would work, without success, and just want to call it a day, pull your boat in, start on the tedious repairs to your linen nets, hang the nets up to dry in the sun so they won’t rot, and go home to find something to eat and maybe take a long nap.  It has been a day of it and for the disciples – a depressingly unsuccessful one at that, in an effort that at best would have been exhausting.  Everything a lifetime of experience and training said to do, they had done, as now they prepare to beach their boats empty only to find the shore full of people… crowded around a teacher and pressing in upon him.  Drawing close, perhaps hoping the crowd would part and let them drag their boats onto land, the day hasn’t ended; Jesus steps into their boat and inquires if they could pull out just a bit into the water so he could use the boat like a pulpit.  Hospitality being a chief virtue and cultural ethos, how could they say no?

Finally, the teaching of Jesus apparently done, things take an even more interesting turn as Jesus now commands “Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.”  I find myself wondering if they know at this point that Jesus was a carpenter and not a fisherman.  Would it have made a difference?  Maybe the words of Matthew 7:28-29 [NRSV] that would come later already had resonated with them: “…the crowds were astounded at his teaching,  for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”  Nevertheless, it doesn’t go down all that well, as Simon Peter replies “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing.  BUT (he adds) because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.”  And so, they go into the deep water.

Let’s think about the setting again.  Like fishermen still who work at night in that area, lamps had been hung, in hopes of drawing fish close to their trammel nets, which typically span 25 feet.  They would have worked their boats in the shallow shore waters of that part of the Sea of Galilee, where the fish would normally have been gathered, nighttime being the best time for the type of fish they sought in that part of the Sea of Galilee, likely Musht – a fish that grows up to 15 inches in length and three pounds in weight.  I’m sure they thought this won’t work, only for them to experience full nets.  The boats almost sinking from the weight of the fish caught; fish they would not have expected to be close to the surface, in numbers, in the deep water… fish enough to eat, fish enough to sell. Their arms as sore as mine were on that fine Australian day, as they shared the work… the work would be impossible alone.

So clearly, going fishing with Jesus can be a bit scary.  I think Peter was about as freaked by events as our guide when I had a crocodile on my line.  This isn’t what is expected, and so Peter commands Jesus: “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinner!”  But, the Lord won’t leave, and fear won’t not drive him off…. Peter’s fear that he isn’t worthy enough… or capable enough…. or strong enough… or smart enough… or resourced enough.  Just like us.  Along the way over the next three years – all the way to Good Friday, Peter would speak or evidence an anxiety rooted in one of those or another, seeing the weakness in himself.  Jesus saw more – the way he does with all of us.  Peter would grow, moving past his attempts to limit the sweep of the Gospel, to one that includes all peoples.  Peter would grow, moving past his betrayal, his guilt, to a life of grace overflowing.  Peter would indeed become “the rock.”  This transformation is why what one minister wrote resonates:

“If we ever thought that having faith would make life a cinch, it doesn’t take long to get over that idea.  God calls us to love, and sometimes love ends badly.  God calls us to give, and sometimes our gifts are rejected.  God calls us to welcome the stranger, and sometimes the stranger is stranger that we expected.  God shows us how to fish for people, to care for them, to nurture them.  Sometimes those people leave, or are taken from us, or they hurt us.  Fishing for people is no afternoon of drifting on the lake.  It is serious business.  It is a boat so full of answered prayers it almost sinks.”

SO WHAT?

If the Gospel indeed calls us beyond the proverbial “tried and true” way of being “church,” it’s with a word to leave the shallows for deep water.  Every day.  That’s what this congregation did four years ago, in creating the Welcome Table.  You went into the deep water.  No crocodiles to worry about, but certainly I expect a share of fears alongside hope and excitement, fishing in waters beyond the marvelous care you take with one another, by connecting with the community in which we live and serve.  Drawing others in — through service.  Period.  We live in an age when evangelism, the sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ, has too often become confused with getting folks in church instead of his followers embracing the alternative way He taught.  We live in an age when worship seemingly is defined as having an attractive performance that keeps folks coming back and bringing their friends – and their checkbooks — instead of a place of discipleship where we hear again God’s call upon us and equip ourselves to go back out and live the way of Jesus in a world starved for the genuineness of his love.

Going into the deep water changes us.  Always.  This is why I think John van de Laar, a South African Methodist minister, is spot on when he reminds us that in our Scriptures:

“…the measure of a ‘church’ is not its buildings, its denominational affiliation, its faithfulness to certain doctrinal or political ideologies, or its size and wealth.  The measure of a church is in the way it integrates into the community in which it is placed, and how it becomes the hidden, subversive, influence for grace, bringing greater care to the broken, more accessible and sustainable resources to the needy, more companionship to the lonely, and more unyielding opposition to the forces that would rob any human being of the abundant life which Jesus sought to bring.”

That church, the one that abides in the deep water, is the one that responds perhaps a bit like Peter at times, and like Peter, discovers a fullness to our boat that has everything to do with who we become as a fellowship.

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes:  Sacredise, “Epiphany 5C.”  Accessed at http://sacredise.com/lectionary-resources/epiphany-5c/

People of God and Their Own Memory

luke 4b*Sermon preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 3 February 2019.  Discipleship is grounded in our memory of God’s love for others.  Btw, I am fairly certain that in the moment of preaching the sermon, there was more detail added at the very end of the sermon. – Vinson

Gospel of Luke 4:21-30 (New Revised Standard Version) 

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’  And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”  And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.  But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;  yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.  There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.   They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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INTRODUCTION

In my teens, I had this amazing Sunday School teacher who really opened me to fearless wrestling with scripture.  She trusted us to figure things out with her as much more of a moderator of discussion than an instructor.  I’d come out of class disappointed it had to end.  Then, at the close of my junior year in high school, Dad and Mom took a new church halfway across the US.  A whole new Sunday School class and teacher, and a whole new style.  Much more chained to the material and the teacher steered discussion much more assertively.

In contemplating the words of today’s readings, the thing that kept coming back to me was how in class one Sunday morning the teacher was going on and on, telling us what to think about a particular passage and listening pretty much only to herself talk about what I cannot now recall.  The lesson took a sudden turn, as she veered off into anti-Semitic comments and her belief that God hated the Jewish people.  When I raised Paul’s Letter to the Romans, including the 11th chapter, noting the Jews remained our elder brothers in faith in God, she turned red.  After I said God’s calls are irrevocable, from there it went downhill fast when I said I had a hard time believing that God would call them his “chosen people,” look after for them some three millennium only to suddenly tell them that they were all going to end up in Hell.  She stood up, yelled at me she was going to tell my father what I said, and went out the door, flinging it so hard it shammed shut with a loud bang.

Thus ended the excitement of class that Sunday morning.  After church Dad came up to me and quietly said Mrs. So & So had come to see him.  “She said she would,” I replied.  He smiled, patted me on the shoulder and without telling me if I was right or wrong, freeing me to ponder in freedom, as he quietly said: “Son, there’s just some things you can’t say to some people.”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

You see, as the scholar William Willomon notes, in this tumultuous lesson from the Gospel of Luke:  “Luke wants it understood:  The problem with Jesus is not between the new and the old, between the known and the unknown, but between the people of God and their own memory.”

FOR INSTANCE

It bears repeating, “The problem with Jesus is not between the new and the old, between the known and the unknown, but between the people of God and their own memory.”  Now if we’re honest with ourselves, we know all too well that wrestling with scripture can be messy… it can be upsetting… it can unsettle assumptions lurking in one’s heart and mind with stories which demonstrate the opposite of what one thinks is, or rather, should be true.  I think that’s exactly happening here at Nazareth.

Jesus begins with scripture. – the ground from which he always speaks, the source of our memory as the people of God.  The  people sat down, I imagine looking forward to hearing comfortable words and maybe even see a miracle or two.  They might have expected even more of him, as the folks in Capernaum were a mixed lot of Jews, Romans, and other nations, so how much more the people here in Nazareth were deserving.  Largely absent of foreigners, and again – his hometown people – why wouldn’t they be even more blessed?  Listening as Jesus read from Isaiah, likely translating the Hebrew words into the more familiar Aramaic language spoken by the local population, at first the congregation exclaimed, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  After all, Jesus had arrived with the news coming ahead of him, of miracles performed in Capernaum and elsewhere.  Who would have ever guessed the son of the village carpenter — the man who had once helped his father make the furniture, doors, windows and shutters that made their homes comfortable and secure – would be such a teacher!  What they don’t see is that he hasn’t come to them as the son of Joseph, but Jesus has come as the Son of God.

Alas, the folks at Nazareth are found to have Biblical amnesia; they have forgotten their own story and can’t connect the dots of Jesus announcing the fulfillment of the kingdom of God at hand.  If one doesn’t remember the story, hearing a prophetic word becomes a real challenge, and so things quickly turned hostile when Jesus put his finger right in the tender spot of resentment.  Sharing the stories of Elijah and Elisha healing foreigners, he said: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’  And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”  Having forgotten the expansiveness of God’s grace, even while revealing their own jealousy, they react badly.

If we take this one time that the gospels record Jesus stepping foot in his hometown during his 3-year ministry, I’d like to suggest that we not think of Nazareth as simply a town, but as a perspective, as a way of seeing others, and even as a way to control God.  One way or another, the scriptures are saturated with story after story of attempts to control God, and so as another has observed:

Anytime we privilege ourselves over another before God, anytime we see our group as more deserving that another of God’s goodness and grace, anytime we feel entitled, to the exclusion of others, of God’s life and love, we are living in Nazareth.  Jesus will pass through our midst and go on his way.

Jesus broke the bonds of kinship that day in Nazareth, not as a rejection of the hometown, but as a way of enlarging the hometown.  No one would be excluded.  No one would receive special favors.  No one would be left out.  All are the recipients of the prophecy’s fulfillment.  That’s not always a popular agenda and it’s not always our agenda, but it always God’s agenda.  It is an agenda of love.

This is the nature of the Kingdom that Jesus introduces – the deeper meaning that a singular event and the word “remembrance” that’s carved upon nearly every communion table and we take into the world.

It is remembering that “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

It is remembering that “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

It is remembering that “if I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

It is remembering, “Love is patient.”

It is remembering “love is kind.”

It is remembering “love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

It is remembering that love “does not insist on its own way;

It is remembering love “is not irritable or resentful.”

It is remembering love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”

It is remembering love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

It is remembering, “Love never ends.” [I Corinthians 13]

SO WHAT?

It is remembering for ourselves; it is remembering for others.

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes:  Brian P. Stoffregen, “Exegetical Notes at CrossmarksChristian Resources, Accessed at: http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke5x1.htm .  William Willomon… a quote I wrote down from one of his books some years ago.