“Permission-Giving”

permision*Sermon preached on 05 Aug 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA.  I have truly blessed by the wise counsel of friends and come to understand just how vital intentional counsel is within the Christian walk.  It is a conversation needed.

2 Samuel 11:26-12:15 (New Revised Standard Version)

When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him.  When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.  But the thing that David had done displeased the Lordand the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.   The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.   Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”  Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”  Nathan said to David, “You are the man!  Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.   Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?  You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.   Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.  Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun.  For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”  David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.  Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”  Then Nathan went to his house.

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INTRODUCTION

The years have gone by quickly.  Hard to believe it has been 17 years since I became friends with Kenny and 3 years since I buried him.

A fellow Navy chaplain, I had been his sponsor into his first active duty assignment, when he became a battalion chaplain within the same Marine regiment as myself.

2000-2001 were two tough years.

I had deployed for 8 months, during which I learned I had failed to select for Lieutenant Commander, and then learned this had been the handiwork of a particular chaplain under whom I once served.  I would later promote and then again, but at that time… the sting was fresh upon me.  Then, Julie’s dad developed terminal cancer and we lost him.

There were just lots of stresses, even though we lived in beautiful Hawaii.  But, I had become close friends with Kenny, so there was that.

We didn’t agree on politics.  We didn’t agree on some religious issues, even though both Christians.  But, Kenny and I trusted each other, and trust… it is the coin of the realm in so many ways.

Amid that trust, one of the things Kenny challenged me, in his soft-spoken, kind way, was the need for personal accountability.  It had not really been a part of the discussion at my seminary, but was for him and I learned something new in my faith walk.

So it was that Kenny, another chaplain, and even one of my former corpsmen, became those whom I empowered to be truth-tellers to me.  I still chuckle at the latter, who asked “Why me, Godsquad?”  He always called me that.  I chuckled and noticed that he was a recovering alcoholic of 16 years, and that if anyone knew what self-deception is, it would be an recovering alcoholic!

I wanted them to walk with me, to speak truth if and when I needed it most, for my sake as much as the ministry to which I was called.

I would add to this learning, which would become essential to my welfare in the years ahead, and remains so today.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

It is this element of spiritual accountability that lies at the very center of this poignant passage from II Samuel, recalling a not so great moment in the life of King David.  A moment in time that speaks to a needed element of all who would seek to follow after God, keeping His commandments – and living justly in relationship with others.

FOR INSTANCE

It is easy to overlook how in God’s Word, the whole person is reflected in the narratives, giving us a place to see our reflection, to be students, and see the redemptive hand of God moving through flawed human beings.  So it is now with David.

In the preceding chapter, it is all too evident that the once humble David has gone rogue, become arrogant, lost his spiritual bearings.

He doesn’t yet realize it, but God knows, as always.  There is no secret sin before God.

He had put his most skilled general in the front lines, quietly having given orders for the troops to pull back and let their enemy kill him – as if that would not make David culpable for murder.

David does this, because even though he had multiple wives, nothing was enough for him now, as he bedded the wife of Uriah, whom he had seen bathing from the high vantage of his rooftop, she had become pregnant, his efforts to pin that on Uriah had failed, and now he moved to have him killed and quickly take her for a wife – all to conceal his sins of adultery and coveting.

One is not prepared for this, “thing that was evil in the eyes of Yahweh.”  Not from David of all people.

David has mistaken his divine appointment as freedom from accountability.

He thought it would go unnoticed.

At this point, Nathan enters, with a story to tell David, one that catches David’s sense of justice… A story of a poor man with but one beloved female lamb.  A story which uses loaded words like “he took” and “lie” – that carry an undertone of rape, while speaking of selfishness, destruction, and greed.

David is rightly enraged, as David pronounces sentence upon the unknown rich man – only to hear four words of blunt rebuke from Nathan, no longer couched in story:  “You are the man!”

Nowhere to hide, finding himself on the receiving end of a dynamic that would a thousand years later find its fuller expression in Jesus’ words as found in Matthew 7:3 [ESV]: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

Powerful reminder.  Even a king must tolerate AND heed a prophet’s reproach, for his failure to honor Torah, having violated three commandments: adultery and coveting, bookending a murder.

If David was seduced by the royal view of divine right, he is now shown to be answerable to the covenantal reality – something he cannot escape.

All are accountable before God, that is the final word.

Now, knowing this, what stands out is that even if Nathan took care and had a strategy to ensure David owned his sin, there is the evidence that what set David apart was his acceptance of that word.  Unlike some in positions of power, he did not weasel his way out it… He did not tweet about other people who had done something bad or worse…. He did not try to spin it as fake news as to what had transpired with Uriah.  He did not go looking for prophets who would whitewash his sins because, after all, there was so much “good” he was doing that they wanted the government to do.

No, David owned the acceptance.

He saw his spiritual blindness for what it was.  His moral courage found its footing, and his repentance was sincere.  He abandons his sense of moral autonomy and returns to living in the covenantal relationship that starts with God.

Spiritual maturity can indeed emerge out of the deepest of moral failures…

When the truth is fully embraced about oneself, then the past becomes just that… past, through the forgiveness of our Lord, and…

When one ensures a means of spiritual accountability.

This brings me to what I recall from 2006, when I was amid a year-long clinical training program.

Not everyone has a Nathan.

Not everyone has someone inspired by the Letter of James (5:19-20, NRSV), where it is written:  “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Often, folks just stay silent.  Perhaps because they know they aren’t perfect themselves.  Perhaps because they fear being judgmental, or just being wrong.

But, as my supervisor added to the insight Kenny had shared with me five years earlier, he noted to my group that while we assume friends will tell us the truth – they generally won’t, unless we give them permission.

Why, one might ask?

Well, perhaps simply because they so value the friendship, they are afraid to risk it.

Does it really matter?

As to the questions, one pastor has suggested these five [edited]:

1. What are you doing to enjoy life?  Calling upon us to pursue legitimate pleasures—in balance with our life responsibilities.  “Shooting the breeze” about your favorite hobby is not just wasting time while your waiter brings your breakfast; it is part of the accountability relationship.

2. What new stressors are entering your life?  When we don’t feel like anyone knows or understands what we’re going through, all of the lies that make sin appealing become more convincing.  Sometimes our friend may be able to suggest things to reduce the stress, but –even if they can’t — these are not wasted conversations.

3. Would you like to “just hang out”?  If accountability partners only spend time together “doing accountability” then their relationship will likely begin to feel like a sin-hunt.  Having times when you “hang out” is vital to accountability providing the long-term protection.

4. Who or what is getting too much air time in your thought life right now?  Asking this question is a great way to become self-aware of our thoughts.  Similar to the stress question, it doesn’t have to carry the negative connotation.

5. What are you passionate about in the coming weeks, months, or year? How it is going?  Your friend should already know, but if they don’t, then they have to know what “it” is before they can ask how “it’s” going.

Hearing these, the real question for us is, to whom would we willingly give permission to seek such truth?

Well, I am pretty sure after 35 years that Julie will tell me most of the time, but…. Sometimes, no matter the love and friendship, we may not hear our spouse holding us accountable.  We might instead just push back, or just have selective hearing!

And let’s be real, I don’t think it’s much fun or even fair to place that whole burden on our spouse or significant other.

As for me, I added to my close circle along the way, not knowing how much I would need it.

I had been severely injured, as I have mentioned, in 2010.  What you would not know is that only a few months before I had assumed a position as a regimental chaplain, where every chaplain had put on an eagle, making O6.  It would not happen for me, not with me injured as I was.

A few weeks passed and I was talking with one of those trusted agents of mine, a friend whom I had so empowered to tell me truth about myself – even if it cost the friendship – so I would stay on the right track.

I had begun to pity myself and commented to him, “Well, there goes captain.”

The other end grew quiet.

Then two simple sentences.

“Vince, do you remember when you made me promise?  You’re doing it, man.”

The promise had been initiated when I had promoted to commander, and I had told him if I ever sounded like my rank risked being more important to me than my calling, he must do whatever he needed to get my attention.

It hit me.

All I could say was, “Yeah, you’re right,” and got myself back in the lane that a better part of me had long before chosen.

It doesn’t have to be about the 10 Commandments, or the Golden Rule even, it can even just be about one’s state of mind.

I just needed kind truth.

Eight years have passed.

He and I are still good friends.  We don’t agree on politics and we differ on some aspects of faith, but I will never doubt his counsel if he picks up on something that I need to hear about myself.

SO WHAT?

I would challenge you to identify your own accountability partners and/or invite a couple of “trusted ones” to officially become your honest ballast — as Nathan was to David.  Having relationships we can rely upon to have our back through honest communication is truly among the best gifts we could ever have:  as such accountability is really about helping us to live life well.   AMEN.

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Pastor’s Note:  There are a great number of books and articles, the one I cited and edited, is just one, but I like it because it isn’t about being on a “sin hunt” but just keeping healthy in life… so one is less likely to step into the wrong path.  “5 Questions I Wish My Accountability Partner Would Ask Me,” Brad Hambrick, dated 22 Jun 2015.  Accessed on 04 Aug 2018, at https://www.covenanteyes.com/2015/06/22/5-questions-i-wish-my-accountability-partner-would-ask-me/

Curiosity… The Disciple’s Vital Skill

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

GOSPEL OF JOHN 6:1-21

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

Very.

Sometimes annoyingly so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

It’s charades indeed!

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

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

But what is their real need?

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

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

But what is their real need?

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

We are disciples, after all.  Students.

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

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

Why would Jesus do that?

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

They are dutiful, but missing something.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t you find that interesting?

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

What’s his response?

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

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

Could they simply be about assurance of his care?

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

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

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

B.C. Before Church, so to speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

Amen.

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

At the Intersection of Coming & Going

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

We both needed a break.

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

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

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

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

We pulled over.

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

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

We fight it.

And circumstances intrude, don’t they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We used to take the whole day.

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

The disciples certainly earned a break.

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately for the disciples, rest got deferred.

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

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

It is humanity connecting to humanity.

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

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

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

Our world is a hectic place.

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

But, says Jesus, “Come away.”

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

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

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

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

Faithfulness in An Unfaithful Age

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

The Gospel of Mark 6:1-13

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was the key.

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

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

I went immediately to my Commodore.

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

King’s prophetic word is just as relevant now.

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

They knew the temperature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one minister has written in recent days,

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

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

There is nothing redemptive or life-giving in it.

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all of this?

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

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

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

Of this time we are challenged to:

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

And so,

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

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

AMEN!

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

What Makes Sermons Tick?

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (II Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,

Rev. Vinson Miller, Pastor

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

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

Jesus of the Margins

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

And so, Jesus steps ashore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 years of medical misery, without solution.

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

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

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

12 years of exile to what was not her home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 12-year exile was over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We did it anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

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

Amen.

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

“Thy Sea so Great, Our Boat so Small”

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

36 degrees or more would have started toward capsizing her.

It went like this for days.

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

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

The ship of steel groaned and so did they

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

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

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

Water comes over the rails and panic ensues.

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

The disciples don’t wake Jesus to save him.

The disciples woke Jesus to save themselves.

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

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

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

A circle of fear stops there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crayon drawings.  Pencil drawings.  Ink drawings.

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

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

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

He spoke about family.

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

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

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

Let’s think about this.

Not some.  All.

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

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

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

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

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

It is why, Tutu says,

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

It has had me thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

The chaos cannot be ignored.

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

And so Tutu reminds us,

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

Amen.

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

Ethnic Cleansing on Our Borders?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeds of Empathy, Hearts of Compassion

Presentation3Mark 4:26-34 New Revised Standard Version

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

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SERMON OF 17 JUNE 2018

INTRODUCTION

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

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

Actually, tree limbs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

We dare not look away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one Methodist minister has written,

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

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

He asks us to contemplate:

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

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

We lift up the sanctity of families—all families.

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

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

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

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

Amen!

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HOW CAN YOU HELP?

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

Make your voice heard.  

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

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

Where Faith Stops

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, they choose to lean on their own insight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God knows this, but the people will not hear.

Instead, they enthrone a king.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal happiness and success associated only with what one owns.

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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