“The ‘Legion’ We Experience in Life”

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

WHY DO I BRING THIS UP?

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

       to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

       to let the oppressed go free,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

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

Amen.

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“Lifted Up” (Trinity Sunday)

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

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

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION’

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

Amen.

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

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-the-doctrine-of-the-trinity

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

 

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

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

Blessings,
Vinson
Hampton, Virginia
11 June 2019

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

Thank you.

PPT for WordPress

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

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 SO WHAT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When this happens,

when we allow freedom to ring,

when we let it ring from every village

and every hamlet,

from every state and every city,

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

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

May the church say, Amen!

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