“Gratitude in the Borderlands”

*Sermblogphotoon preached on 13 October 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Honestly, I’d like to expand upon the whole “borderlands” aspect of this, and may well do so.  It really is a profound metaphor for where Jesus meets all of us in life-changing encounters…. and where the grace of God stands out most clearly.  It is the context always, for the gratitude that is what marks out the truly Christian life, in every circumstance.  It is this that I myself am pondering and will continue to do so, in my own life.  I invite you to do likewise. – Vinson

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Gospel of Luke 17:11-19 (New Revised Standard Version)

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.  As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.  Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”   Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

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INTRODUCTION

One of the things that warms any parent’s heart is when other people comment on the children’s positive traits.  Let’s face it, it isn’t easy being a parent.  A parent notices what isn’t going as well as we would hope, or where our child needs growth.  Sometimes, it’s just hard to have the big picture of success.  That’s why back when our children were little, Julie and I started noticing what was good in other folks’ children and telling the parents… who would often become emotional with relief and joy.  Parent to parent encouragement is a needed gift.

Let’s face it, in the daily grind it is sometimes hard to see that bigger picture of success, and parents can use the encouragement.  All of us can use that kind word of where we are being successful, to be honest, parents or not.

It was back in that timeframe that Julie and I started a daily practice of just spending about 15 minutes together.  Julie took the even-numbered days and I took the odd-numbered days!  It was our way of sharing ownership for initiating a conversation that would always start with gratitude.  Some of it might be for specific daily chores.  Some of it might be for those singular moments, like Julie going out of her way to pick up cards for me to send our Moms for an upcoming Mother’s Day or for their birthdays.  I suppose for some, it might be just laying out clothes that match, for those of us a bit colorblind or have no sense of style!  Then we’d check with the other as to anything that was missed, as to our expressing appreciation.  It just made us much more aware of all the small things that go into making a household run, raising kids, and being married.  Then we’d go over our calendars, so we both knew what was happening, before touching upon any need for a changed behavior.

Simple.  Uplifting.  Unifying.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Gratitude.

If the text from the Gospel offers a number of sermon possibilities, gratitude surely is at the heart of today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke.

How often do we really, deliberately consider it?  I mean REALLY, deeply, consider it?

I’m not talking about the courtesy thank yous we say when someone opens a door, but actually centering ourselves in the BEING a people of gratitude, living a life of noting and appreciating that which is good?

FOR INSTANCE

Having set his face toward Jerusalem, in the 9th chapter of Luke, where he will finally arrive in the 19th chapter, if we peruse those chapters that span between, we might notice that Jesus tended to frequent those borderlands between Samaria and Galilee.  I would suggest the “borderlands” is something of a metaphor for where the ministry of Jesus takes place in human life.

In today’s lesson, the borderlands are where Jesus encounters ten men begging for assistance, a mix of untouchables, a people whose shared suffering had become their tribe.  Not just any suffering, but socially isolating as much as physically painful, cut off as it were, from the land of the living, with a life that but awaited death.  The two types of lepresy both ended in death, one in 9-10 years and the other in maybe 20.

William Barclay describes the hideous progression of the worse form of this disease:  Eyebrows would fall out; the eyes become staring; the vocal chords become ulcerated, and the voice becomes hoarse, and the breath wheezes.  The hands and feet always ulcerate, and eventually one’s life would end in ulcerated growth, mental decay, coma and ultimately death. Or, one’s nerve trunks are affected, the muscles waste away, and the hands become like claws, with the progressive loss of fingers and toes, until in the end a whole hand or a whole foot may drop off.

​ So the cleansing of lepers, that earlier, in Luke 7:22, Jesus singled out, saying: “Go and tell John… the lepers are cleansed,” was no accidental sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.  Leprosy made them rejected by both Jews and Samaritans alike.  They were alive and yet dead to all who knew them.

In this narrative, at least one is a Samaritan, and reading between the lines it seems that the other nine were likely Jewish.  Together, they address Jesus as “master,” a term which in Luke is only used by the disciples to address Jesus, and immediately he sends them to show themselves to the priests to confirm their healing.  They hadn’t looked at their own skin… they just ran… and amid their running, they are healed.

It’s a three-part telling, that Luke gives us:

There is the healing itself.

There is the turning back and praising God.

There is the prostrating himself and giving thanksgiving at the feet of Jesus.

This three-step is echoed by the words of Jesus:

“Were there not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?”

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Then, there is Jesus’ response to the Samaritan at his feet: “…your faith has made you well,” literally “saved you.”

Jesus told them to show themselves to the priests, but one turns back, at first glance seemingly disobeying Jesus’s direction – as he instead gives thanks.  He knows who the true high priest of God is, as he glorifies God and throws himself at the feet of Jesus, giving thanks.  It is no ordinary word of thanks he employs and no language accident of the ever-thorough Luke, as the former leper glorifies God in thanksgiving.  Luke uses the same verb Jesus would later when he gave “thanks” God for the bread and the cup, and blessed them, at the Last Supper.

It’s only then that Luke tells us that the one who turned back in this borderland, lifting his hands and falling at the feet of Jesus, is a Samaritan.

So we see through this now-healed man, God is at work whenever Jesus notices… and heals hurts… and heals brokenness… in those borderlands where lives otherwise go unnoticed.

I would suggest there is something in this gospel text for us to understand about those who live in the borderlands existing amid n the many kinds of life in the margins  in our communities and in the world.  There is also something we may want to also consider:  those parts of ourselves hidden in the borderlands, the private suffering we may least want to be seen and most need to be touched.  You see, Jesus isn’t put off by journeys into the borderlands of life, but readily meets the needs of sufferers in such places, sufferers in the deepest part of ourselves.

The response of the former leper is no simple one-off thank you, but the active tense of praising… literally staying in a life glorifying God, demonstrating how thanking Jesus IS to live a life that glorifies God.

I would suggest that Glory given to God may come easier to those who realize they’ve received the most from Jesus, the ones he encounters in the borderlands, the ones who’ve been through a lot and discovered the loyal love of God.  I think of the kind of gratitude I see in many who gather at The Welcome Table, for instance.  As Jesus noted when a suffering woman anointed his feet [Luke 7:47], the one who has been given much also loves greatly.

Love that springs from such gratitude IS the essence of faith.

Luke makes clear that Jesus’ life is framed by people glorifying God.  There are the shepherds at his birth [Luke 2:20].  There is the centurion at the foot of his cross [Luke 23:47].  Responding to the life we are given in Jesus is to praise and glorify God.

SO WHAT?

In such a spirit Paul writes, in I Thessalonians 5:18: “in everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

A life of thanks is hard to miss ’s hard to miss, as Julie and I discovered so long ago after our kids had spied on us!  One day our then two-year old son, I expect prompted by his big sister, came and asked if they could do what Julie and I had been doing… if they could join us.  Thus began our Sunday morning before breakfast time of thanks – spending those precious 10 minutes or so singling out something about of what had been done, of every other member of the family, and taking turns at it.  Our children began to express such words of appreciation to others, unbeknownst to us, as adults often came up to us to tell us how polite and such our kids were – not often seeing such a spirit of appreciation among many children… or other adults.

Our kids humbled us, in what for them became a natural way of life, giving thanks.

The soul-searching question for us then this morning, is such a life of gratitude evident in us, if we are honest with ourselves?  In our words to God and one another, in thanksgiving for the life we have in Jesus Christ?  In our acts of service and in our giving?

Have we let it the spirit of gratitude grow cold, or is it like that of the healed leper?

Have we taken it for granted, or praise God without ceasing for His care of us?  Certainly, is that part of our life with the people around us?

With humility, I can see I still have plenty of room to grow.  How about you?

Amen.

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Source on leprosy:  William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: Matthew.  Westminster Press, 1:295.

“That We May Be One” (World Communion Sunday)

blogphoto*Service of 06 October 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Normally I just post the scriptures and sermon for the day, but I thought today would be an excellent exception, on this World Communion Sunday.  For those into history, the first World Communion Sunday service was started by a Presbyterian congregation in the depths of The Great Depression, and on the cusp of World War 2 it was adopted across the US, by what is now known as the National Council of Churches of which the Christian Church (Disciple of Christ) was a founding member.  This day is a way of remembering the larger church of which we all are a part, and Jesus’ intent that we “be as one” in our witness.  We often mess that up, so the day is a call back to that early word.  This so this is a simpler service in a way, one that hearkens back to the early church practices and the pragmatic spirit that is so evident in the Book of Acts and elsewhere.  We would do well to emulate their spirit, more so in such a polarized age, that Jesus would be honored by our being as “one.” -Vinson

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Call to Worship (Acts 2:42-47)

One:           “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.
Many:        A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.
One:           All the believers were united and shared everything.  They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.
Many:        Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes.  They shared food with gladness and simplicity.
One:           They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.  The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”

Offering

All that we have is an offering, the food we bring as much as what we place in the offering baskets.  Shall we give thanks to the Lord.

Invocation / Blessing for the Food and Offerings

Holy One, you are the Bread of Life,
    You are the Cup of healing for all the nations.
You delight our senses with smell and touch,
    with sight and sound,
    with taste and pleasure.
As we have gathered, like wheat from the hills
    to become your body,
    fill us with your Holy Spirit,
    and make us overflow with your presence.
Bring us to your banquet table,
    that we may feed the world
    in praise and prayer.
In such a spirit of thanksgiving
    which honors you,
          the Author of Life,
          the Redeemer of Life,
          the Sustainer of Life,
bless now the gifts we bring
    those to nourish our bodies and spirits,
    those to equip your church here and in all places,
        that this fellowship ‘round table,
            strengthen us as a community and
            demonstrate your love
                 through our worship in word and deed.  Amen.

Gloria Patri

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise God all creatures here below;
Praise God above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.

TABLE FELLOWSHIP

Instructions

Scriptures

We are used to thinking of both the Old and New Testaments as our scriptures, but in the first century scriptures for the early church meant what we call the Old Testament – with the Books of Moses, the writings, the prophets, the Psalms, being read.  Copies of the early Christian writings that eventually become the New Testament, began to be circulated for instruction and encouragement.  So when you hear today’s lessons, put yourself in the mind of one who might for the first time be hearing them, as if a copy of Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy having made its way to our church.

Book of Lamentations 3:19-26 (New Revised Standard Version)

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
    is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.

2 Timothy 1:1-14 (New Revised Standard Version)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,
To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.  Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.  I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.  For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.  For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do.  But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.  Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

Anthem   “The One” (Courtney)

PASTOR’S MESSAGE

INTRODUCTION

Around 1972 or 73, on our annual trip as a family down to Coral Gables, Florida, to see my mom’s family, as we always did, we went to the church my Dad walked to as a 6-year old, on his own.  Dad was baptized there, married there, ordained there, and eventually buried there.  On that Sunday, communion was a bit different.  The juice was grape Kool-Aid, as usual, which the aged church custodian always made before church.  That Sunday, he got confused.  He thought he was adding sugar.  Umm, let me tell you it was NOT sugar.  I guess it was a good thing I was a sipper because, unlike some, I didn’t toss the juice back like a shot glass, because it was some seriously salty juice!

The congregation gagged!

Rev. Cole, a wise, gentle soul with a sense of humor, didn’t miss a beat:  quickly noting that, lest there be any doubt, we were in the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:13, now “the salt of the earth,” as those meant to bring flavor to this lifeless world!  He was right, but I think I prefer saltless grape juice!

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because we all have memories associated with this meal.  Sometimes of surprise when in the mystery we experience the Lord intimately and profoundly.  Sometimes when we are touched with the joy of the morning — having come at the very moment when we feel we’re at nightfall.  Sometimes, like today when we think about Christians around the world and across the boundaries of denominations celebrating with us the ultimate unity of the Body of Christ that is expressed in the sharing of the bread and cup.

FOR INSTANCE

I encourage you today to ponder the sacredness of the tables before you.  I encourage you to share your experiences around this table of love.  I urge you to focus not on the usual ritual, but on the simplicity of the fellowship you experience in not just this church building, but in your homes, be it in your everyday meals or at special times such as holidays or celebrations.  Be FULLY aware of all that any meal entails: the hands that raised the cattle, the hands that grew the fruits, the hands that harvested and moved the pieces of the meal to you, the labor of the ones who planned and lovingly prepared and served it… and then likely also will clean up after it.

We have pulled ourselves out of our normal experience, our comfort zone, even our sanctuary, for our communion service today, and drawn upon “The Didache”( also known as “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) as a way of reconnecting to the early church experience.  It’s an early Christian treatise of practical instruction as to how very worship practices were carried out.  Contemporary to the Disciples and to Paul, like the New Testament, it set forth the standard operating procedures in the young church, including the mechanics to the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and the instruction of those converting to the faith.  It’s considered likely to have been written in the early Syrian community, where Paul had started out his journey.

Communion.  Lord’s Supper.  Eucharist.  By whatever language, in whatever part of the world, by whatever ritual, whatever kind of bread is used, whatever fills the cup – grape juice, wine or peculiar Kool-Aid, and however we understand the mystery of what happens in this meal – we center ourselves and our work here where we come together.  It was at that very first table, in the Upper Room, where the fervent prayer of Jesus and his blessing for those who follow him, was that we would be one.  As it’s written in John 17:16-23, said Jesus:

“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.  I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

That we may be one.

As the outgrowth of a Christian unity movement founded more than two centuries ago on the American frontier which sought to rekindle the inclusive nature and worship of the first century church, we have long held to the  belief that Christ’s church stands for a radical inclusion of all of God’s children at the Table of the Lord.  So, on this day we gladly join with congregations and denominations around the world celebrating that in the Lord, we are One people, and in the Lord, we hold an expansive and welcoming love.

SO WHAT?

As a Christian writer and composer, Jan Richardson, has written:

And the table will be wide,

And the welcome will be wide.

And the arms will open wide

    to gather us in.

And our hearts will open wide to receive.

And we will come

    as children who trust there will be enough.

And we will come unhindered and free.

And our aching will be met with bread.

And our sorrow will be met with wine.

And we will open our hands

    to the least without shame

And we will turn toward each other without fear.

And we will give up our appetite for despair.

And we will taste and know of delight.

And we will become bread

    for a hungering world.

And we will become drink

    for those who thirst.

And the blessed will become the blessing.

And everywhere will be the feast.

Amen!

Hymn  “Jesus Loves Me!”

Jesus loves me! This I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong;
they are weak, but he is strong.
Jesus loves me still today,
Walking with me on my way,
Wanting as a friend to give
Light and love to all who live.
Refrain:
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

BREAKING OF BREAD

Explanation & Invitation to the Lord’s Supper

Here is the table of the Lord, as those gathered to his supper, a foretaste of things eternal.

Come, when you are fearful, to be made new in love.

Come, when you are doubtful, to be made strong in faith.

Come, when you are regretful, and be made whole.

We are invited to come together around this table

    as those who belong to the household of Christ,

        brothers and sisters who in our baptized lives

           live out the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Here we are the family of the reborn and the reconciled,

    who inhabit a universe of grace, here there is room for all.

Pastor:

“Almighty Master, You created all things for Your name’s sake, and gave food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give You thanks; but gave us spiritual food and drink and eternal life through Your Son.  Before all things we give You thanks that You are powerful; Yours is the glory for ever and ever. “ [Didache 10:3-4]

Communion Hymn: “Let Us Break Bread Together”

Let us break bread together on our knees, (on our knees)
let us break bread together on our knees. (on our knees)
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me. (on me)

Let us drink wine together on our knees, (on our knees)
let us drink wine together on our knees. (on our knees)
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me. (on me)

Let us praise God together on our knees, (on our knees)
let us praise God together on our knees. (on our knees)
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me. (on me)

Let us praise God together on our knees, (on our knees)
let us praise God together on our knees. (on our knees)
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy if you please. (if you please)

Congregation:

“We give You thanks, O our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Your Son Jesus; Yours is the glory for ever and ever.”  [Didache 9:3]

Elder’s Blessing of the Bread & Sharing at Table

“Jesus took the bread and broke it saying, ‘This is my body, which is broken for you.'” 

Congregation:  “We give You thanks, O our Father, for the holy vine of Your son David, which You made known to us through Your Son Jesus; Yours is the glory for ever and ever.”  [Didache 9:2, followed by Elder’s prayer]

Elder’s Blessing of the Cup & Sharing at Table

Lifting a cup, offering thanks, sharing it, Jesus said “Drink from it, all of you, for this is the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Pastor:  “As this broken bread was scattered on the mountains and being gathered together became one, so may Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.”  [Didache 9:4, followed by Elder’s prayer]

Prayers of the People

Would each of shepherding teams take a few moments to share concerns for which we will pray today?  I will stop by each group amid the sharing, and then we’ll sing our final hymn together.

Hymn of Prayer:   “Into My Heart”

Into my heart, into my heart,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus;
Come in today, come in to stay;
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

Responsive Prayer

Pastor:  O God, most high, you care for the lowly, but look down on the haughty.  In your steadfast love, fulfill your purpose for us.
Many:  Lord, have mercy.
Pastor:  We pray for the church and for all who work to give hospitality to others God, most high, you care for the lowly.
Many:  Lord, have mercy.
Pastor:  We pray for peace among nations, religions, ideologies, and people.
Many:  Lord, have mercy.
Pastor:  We pray for all those injured by war, natural disaster, or financial collapse, all who cry out for help.
Many:  Lord, have mercy.
Pastor:  We pray for those oppressed because of class, age, gender, ability, or sexual orientation.
Many:  Lord, have mercy.
Pastor:  We pray for all afflicted by illness or overcome by the fear of death.
Many:  Lord, have mercy.
Pastor:  Gracious God, you are the friend of those in need. Like Abraham and Sarah, may we show hospitality, whether you come in the form of angels or refugees, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Many:   Amen.

INVITATION

We are all invited to a life in Jesus Christ.  In reflecting upon God’s call upon your life,     amid words spoken, meal shared, if the Spirit has so moved you during this time of worship please stand if you would choose to give your life to Christ today deepen your life in our congregation in membership, or to rededicate your life to Christ.

Benediction of The Lord’s Prayer  (Luke 11:2-4)

Our Heavenly Father, may the glory of your name be the center on which our life turns.  May your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.  Manifest your kingdom on earth.  And give us our needed bread for the coming day.  Forgive our sins as we ourselves release forgiveness to those who have wronged us.  And rescue us every time we face tribulations.  Amen.

Go forth to love and serve the Lord!

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Pastor’s Notes

“The Didache” ( also known as “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”), is an early Christian treatise of practical instruction as to how worship practices were carried out.  Written in the common Greek language of the day (Koine Greek), it is generally dated by scholars as being contemporary to the Disciples and of Paul, approximately 50-70 AD to as late as 110 AD.
Words used at conclusion of the serrmon, to “And the Table Will Be Wide,” are © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com and used by permission of the author.  Accessed on 05 October 2019 at : //paintedprayerbook.com/2012/09/30/and-the-table-will-be-wide/

Lectionary Scriptures for Today

Lamentations 1:1-6, Lamentations 2:19-26 or Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:-1-14  +  Luke 17:5-10
Psalm 137  or  Psalm 37:1-9

“Memorial Service for Kayleigh Christian Ellifritz”

*Memorial service for Kayleigh was held on 01 October 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton, before our weekly Tuesday evening “Welcome Table” community meal.   No service can heal the hurt, but only starts the journey and reminds us that in the brokenness we are not alone.  May God embrace her family and friends. – Vinson

Psalm 27:1-4 (NRSV)

 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold[a] of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
    to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
    they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
    yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
    and to inquire in his temple.

Book of Isaiah 43:18-21 (NRSV)

Do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
    the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
    rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
    the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Gospel of John 14:1-3 (NRSV)

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

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INTRODUCTION

In the years when I was an active duty Navy chaplain, too often I found myself standing at the door of a home, entering to be a part of the sharing of the tough news that a loved one had been killed.  So often, the event seemed a bit surreal as a wife weep silently while young children played around my feet, joyfully, innocently, bringing me their toys, not comprehending how much their lives and everyone else’s had just changed.  In their innocence, they could not understand the tears of a parent and why all the strangers were now in their home.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

How can we pretend we don’t feel the sting of death amid a tragedy like the present loss?  Should we deny our grief, while knowing full well our own Lord did weep himself when encountering and foreseeing death?  How do we journey ahead?  Amid the shock still not worn off, questions are where one lives in this season of loss and grief.

FOR INSTANCE

It is certainly OK to lift our voices in pain, when the experience of the sting of death touches our lives.  The Psalms are full of such moments of tenderness, of anguish, of searching – yet in everything, affirming God is God.  If we are truly honest with ourselves, in the face of loss of Kayleigh, we may well so badly want a reasonable, logical, and above all – a meaningful reason.  We look for what will somehow rationalize in our hearts and minds such a terribly tragic death.  We ask, aloud or in our thoughts…

Why did this happen?

Why, when so she was so young?

Why, when there were children of tender age still to raise?

Why would a child have to witness such horror?

Why when far more of life should have been ahead, with dreams now suddenly gone forever.

Why would someone who believed in the Lord, suffer so?

Why would one who opened her hands with a generosity of spirit, of home and kindness, be repaid with harm?

Why, oh why?

So many questions beg for an answer, but perhaps it is because we are looking in the wrong place.  No wonder if the Apostle Paul called out to death, in his First Letter to the Corinthians [15:55], saying “O death, where is your sting?” we may well find ourselves replying: “I found it!  It’s here!”  The sting, after all, hits us right in the WHY? as we cry out in search of meaning, with answers we may or may not gather in this lifetime.  Yes, questions are allowed… it is OK to ask, but in a Creation that rests in the many implications of us each possessing free will, we may forget to ask the right question… where do we go from here?

The early Christian community was well-acquainted with death, lifespans much shorter in that age, and then as the age of persecution developed death often came simply because they dared to proclaim Christ.  So when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica, Paul said: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.  For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” [I Thessalonians 4:13-14].

I would suggest that at times, such grief filled with hope may be the highest offering we can present to God, as an act of faithfulness in the relationship of love that surrounds us, in Christ.  As one who spoke poignantly of his own “thorn in the flesh” for which he had prevailed upon God to remove from him, Paul not only doesn’t ignore that aspect, but rests himself in the certainty that death simply won’t have the final say… no matter how bad its sting.  This is why we can hear the invitation to the emphatic promise of Jesus, words nowhere more clearly stated by our Lord than in the Gospel of John:

”ALL [emphasis mine!] that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.  For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” [6:37-40]

Today is, therefore, the affirmation that what is eternal of Kayleigh remains in the same sure place as it was before tragedy unfolded… in the heart of God.

And, my friends, that is the key to all of what we are going through, that even in the experience of tragedy we know this truth in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord:  the enemy cannot snatch one from the hand and heart of Christ and our Father in heaven.  We thus proclaim, Kayleigh’s life in Christ is fulfilled in the promise of Jesus that “Everything the Father gives (Jesus) will come to (him).” [John 6:37]  Nothing that happened on September 16th, no matter how devasting, has the power to thwart God’s will for Kayleigh’s life everlasting.

This is why today is really more of a bridge; the abutment on one end being the affirmation of our hope for Kayleigh found in Christ, and the abutment on the other being our own sureness in the Lord.  The span itself, then, simply bears the question then, as to where we go from here when night comes and the house is still, and what comes close to us in the experience that we’ve been left behind.  Yes, we must acknowledge, that for those who loved and cherished Kayleigh, there is still that life exiled from her physical presence of joy and faith.

Here, I would suggest, is where we would move from the kind of question of “Why did this happen,” to the question found in the words of an ancient Psalmist.  One who sings across the centuries for all the people of God who find themselves amid tragedy, asks:  “How can we sing a new song in THIS land?” [Psalm 137:4]

How shall we sing then, we ask?  What now, we ask, for us?

In all fairness to ourselves and reading of the text, the singer of the 137th Psalm was speaking to those who found themselves by the waters of Babylon where the people of Israel wept under the consequences of their sins against God.  In our case, it was the kind and generous heart of Kayleigh, who found herself the victim of a friend to whom generous hospitality had been extended.

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all of this?

For Kayleigh, the word of prophetic hope found in the Book of Wisdom [3:1-4], has found its ultimate truth in Jesus Christ:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,

and no torment will ever touch them,

In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,

and their departure was thought to be a disaster,

and their going from us to be their destruction;

but they are at peace.

For though in the sight of others they were punished,

THEIR HOPE IS FULL OF IMMORTALITY.

[NOTE:  the Book of Wisdom is an apocryphal book of the 3rd century BC, that is included in Catholic but not Protestant Bibles.]

For us, the question of a new song is a poignant reminder that today simply cannot and will not wrap everything into a neat bow.  Those who loved Kayleigh are on a journey that cannot be rushed, but is measured at the pace of each relationship, in the movement toward peace, in the cleansing of their wounded hearts so what fills their emptiness is an expanding love of God that celebrates the eternity of Kayleigh’s spirit of love.

In such a spirit, on such a journey, for those on this journey and for those of us who walk with them, we can thus hear the word of Prophet Isaiah as he urged those who had been so full of grief amid their experience of exile:

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

May in this new thing, the peace of the Lord uphold you each.

Amen.

“Remembering Not Joseph: A Failure of Faith Ethics”

blogphoto* Sermon preached on 22 September 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  If we are to truly understand how the ethics of God are to guide our lives,  we need to read Amos and let the words of this brief book marinate with our spirits.  Prophetic writings are ageless, because the human condition tends to move away from God.  There was a reason that God set forth the p[ricniple of a ‘Jubilee” – resetting the economic condition of society every 50 years.  It was, of course, not adhered to, but there is a reason God intended it to exist.  As those who follow Christ, who live according to His grace, I think we will better understand the Sermon on the Mount and a great number of the exchanges Jesus has with the existing power structure if we read Amos.  God is not blind, and lest we think the prophet is only gazing upon others, as one commentator wrote, “I don’t sleep on a bed with inlaid ivory ornamentation, but somehow, I am pretty sure that the bed I have is the same one that Amos had in mind.  And I have decided that I don’t like Amos.”   – Vinson

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Book of Amos 6:1a,4-7 (New Revised Standard Version)

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
    and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
the notables of the first of the nations,
    to whom the house of Israel resorts!
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
    and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
    and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
    and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
    and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
    but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
    and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

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INTRODUCTION

It was a pleasant breakfast out last Tuesday morning, with Julie and our grown children, as Ben got ready to go back to Cincinnati.  Afterwards I drove out the back entrance to Cracker Barrel and came back around to the left turn lane for Mercury Blvd.  The inevitable red light stopped my path.  That’s when I noticed the sign, just below the “No U-Turn” symbol.  I have seen it elsewhere over the past couple years, but now I had plenty of time to now read its words: “Please don’t encourage panhandling!  The city and local non-profits help the homeless.”

Help, yes.  Handle it all?  Not on your life!  We know this, if only by all the conversations at The Welcome Table.

Let’s admit it.  The sign is about us looking like a clean city… a city that will attract business… a city where “people” will want to live.  And I get that.  Who doesn’t want the city to flourish?  Tax revenue goes up, investments can be made in schools, roads and services.  It all makes so much sense.

But the more I’ve thought about that sign, the more I find myself thinking it’s really about how much our society would much rather the homeless, the poor, the struggling, the least of these… all just be invisible once and for all.  If we’re really honest with ourselves as a society, it would make us more comfortable and we tell ourselves it would create wealth and somehow that would all trickle down.  Right?

[*An after the sermon preached reflective note: the sign’s genesis may just as well have been a response to complaints as folks didn’t want to feel guilty when they give nothing to panhandlers.]

We need to be honest.  There is no trickle down.  There is only the accumulation of wealth, and it is accelerating.  Whatever sense of social obligation that once existed, is now denied by many in word and/or deed.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I think that’s why this sign bothers me – the city and non-profits have control of it, the sign says, and the message, intended or not, is that we “good people” should therefore not worry about those holding up cardboard signs.  Someone else is responsible.  We should not have to think about their motivations or their circumstances.  We should not see them as our concern.  WE aren’t responsible for them.  Then we come to the reading from Amos, who spoils any such illusions with the direct and inescapable word of God’s sense of ethics grounded in the very nature of God:  moral action is inseparable from the worship of God.

FOR INSTANCE

Although he follows Hosea in the Old Testament, Amos was already speaking God’s word when Hosea came along, followed by Isaiah and Micah – all of them active in the 8th century before Christ.  Jeremiah came later.  So we have to start by thinking of Amos as something of the advance guard, the lead ethicist of God among the prophets.

The united kingdom under David some 150 years before, had divided into Southern and Northern Kingdoms, Judah and Israel, and yet it was a time of relative peace and prosperity, the two kingdoms growing in wealth both as caravan routes and as suppliers to the Egyptians to the south and the growing Assyrian kingdom to the north.

All seems well, but it is not.

As citizen of the southern kingdom, Amos, lives among fellow shepherds, a caretaker of fig trees and sheep who’s not even what we might call a licensed minister in our time.  As typical among the prophets of the Bible, Amos finds himself compelled by God to bring a word he knew would be no more welcomed in the north than the word Martin Luther King Jr brought in our own South.  In the chapter that follows our reading, the lead priest at Bethel, a primary center of worship and the king’s own, will pretty much tell Amos to pack sand and get on back to his own land if he wants to be a prophet.  In the chapter that precedes our reading, Amos had already fired a warning shot across the bow of the religious folk.

This is what we must hold before us; Amos isn’t speaking to the folks who don’t know God.  Rather, he is speaking to the churchgoers of the day as much as the authorities.  Listen what is said in Amos 5:21-24, and take note of how God speaks in first person tense:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

So what exactly is God so hot about?

It’s easy to miss the verse, the one about there is no grief over the ruin of Joseph.  I almost passed by it myself, but it kept pulling me back, the phase echoing an earlier age when it’s said in the Book of Exodus that “Pharaoh remembered not Joseph” [1:8].  That wasn’t a good thing, as we may recall, because that’s when the Israelites began to be oppressed by the Egyptians – “Joseph” being another name for the people of Israel.

So this new failure to “remember Joseph” marks an age of oppression not by a foreign oppressor, but the very leaders of God’s people – those vested with power and authority to take care of the nation, who now use their privilege to enrich themselves!  Just because one’s in charge of a nation it doesn’t mean one is aligned with God’s will.

Yes, King Jeroboam’s reign in the north had seen impressive economic expansion and if they’d a stock market back then, it will have been bullish.  Yet the pronounced moral decay was reflected in the equally expansive economic disparity – some enjoying great wealth while far too many others only crushing poverty.  Amos lines it out for us: in 2:6 the poor are spoken of as being sold for profit; in 4:1, the needy are crushed, and in 5:1 they are trampled upon amid the greed for gain.  It’s just plain ugly.

I don’t think there are any better words to describe the kind of pain God experiences amid such, than those found in one of the other readings for today from the later prophet Jeremiah: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.  Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her king not in her?’’ [Jeremiah 8:18-19].  In the words of Jeremiah’s poignant plea, “’Is there not balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?’” [Jeremiah 8:22]

If ritualistic practices were aplenty and some utterly dripped with religiosity, yet God sees in them a perverse absence of grief for the oppression of their fellow Israelites.  It’s intolerable to God, as depending upon how one parses the Book of Amos, charges are now made against the nation itself:

The poor are being exploited and oppressed – through crushing debt and land seizures.

There are two sets of justice, and the least of these are cheated out of it.

There is excessive luxury of the wealthy.

Offerings are mechanical and magical, absent of a personal relationship with God.

Those of privilege are arrogant and imagine they can be so without any consequence.

In effect, they thought themselves freed from any sense of responsibility to the righteous God of Israel amid oppressive practices toward the poor, idolatrous practices built around selfishness, debased practices that devalued women, and the abandonment of even the pretense of social responsibility.  News flash, my friends: God will not have this; there are consequences.  Then.  Now.  They think because they have a good military, they are safe.  They think because they have great wealth, they are safe.  But safety cannot endure absent of life-giving justice and righteousness… which are, as noted in Amos 5:24, the life-giving water.

If any of this doesn’t remind us of our own society, we haven’t been watching.

But it must also be said, if we like Amos and think he is on our side, we don’t understand him.  Amos grants no escape, no more than Jesus when he said our first task is to remove the log from our own eye before we start addressing others’ splinters.  As one scholar on Amos put it out there for us:

“Unfortunate has been the church’s tendency throughout history to defend the status quo, to be slow to speak out on matters of injustice, to be a follower and not a leader in demanding social reform.  Expressed in Christian terminology, the church has not dared to live the radically different life exemplified and encouraged by Jesus, a life to be lived regardless of the consequences.  The failure cannot be laid to an inherent weakness in the biblical teachings.” [Huey]

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all of this?

Says one author, “Because justice is about God’s preferred social order in which all of life can thrive, it means that society must be more than merely fair.  There must be special provision made for the disadvantaged, especially for those least able to complete on a level playing field.”  [Jacobson, p.185]  To hear it another way, for those of us who well-remember the days when much was not pre-packaged and weigh scales were of constant use in the grocery stores… righteousness is that scale which provides an accurate weight so no one is cheated, while justice is when the grocer realizes someone has a need they cannot afford and so without charge adds an extra measure to their bag.

So if those road signs out there comfort us, what of those in need?

We must certainly admit the city is woefully underfunded on its assistance.  Likewise, the administration and Congress have been steadily whittling away at the food stamps allotted to the disabled and elderly, funding for housing subsidies are being reduced, and mental health services are strained, even as tax cuts have grievously enlarged the pockets of the wealthy and corporations.

In the here and now of FCC, I have no idea how many Tiffani answers, but I know I’m averaging two to four phone calls each week from someone who is short of money.  Sometimes it’s about food – I can work that with THRIVE.  Sometimes it’s about utilities – which remains a tough nut to crack.  Sometimes it’s about having a place to stay – which is usually a dead end, for if that same city sign lists an emergency housing number – I am here to tell you that I’ve yet to find a space …for ANYONE.  I can readily recall the night last winter at The Welcome Table, when Julie spent 40 minutes seeking emergency shelter for someone in a domestic abuse situation – only to be bounced back and forth between agencies before finally having to tell the fearful guest nothing was available for them.

I admit this is what I least like in ministry… telling someone I cannot help.  We don’t have a fund and while it makes sense that THRIVE, HELP and other agencies are better equipped to vet needs – too often needs simply cannot be met.  It just feels like I am being – somehow – disingenuous…

This begs many questions, of which here are two to ponder, you may have others…

What IS our responsibility beyond The Welcome Table, and how can we best meet it?  As much as we must meet our own general budget, it troubles me that we do nothing as a church are doing nothing to help fund the agencies to which we are referring people.

What IS our responsibility – as a church and as individuals – to speak directly to those on city councils, and to our state or federal officials, advocating for helping the poor as an essential priority — that we would be a just society?

I can hazard a guess what God’s sense of ethics would have us do and say… and so could Amos.

Amen.

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Sources:  Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Amos 6:1a,4-7,” in Working Preacher.  26 September 2010, accessed on 17 September 2019 at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=755B. Huey, Jr. “The Ethical Teaching of Amos, Its Content and Relevance,” in Southwestern Journal of Theology, 9 (Fall1966). Accessed on 17 September 2019 at: http://preachingsource.com/journal/the-ethical-teaching-of-amos-its-content-and-relevance/; and in addition to the other articles and book chapters involved in background/exegetical work, I found this of deep interest and worth recommending -Erik Freiburger, “Of Pride & Self-Worship: A Theological Exegesis of Amos 6:1-8,” 08 April 20 2017.  Accessed on 17 September 2019 at: https://www.theinceptionofwonder.com/blog/2017/04/08/of-pride-self-worship-a-theological-exegesis-of-amos-61-8

“Which Door?”

blogphoto*Preached on 08 September 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Some stories do tend to stick with me over the years, a reminder of the choices we all make in life… every single day.  Choices that affirm or deny life.  Choices that affirm or deny the life in others.  -Choice great and small which witness which door we have chosen.  Lots of things to ponder in this text…  Blessings, Vinson

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Book of Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (New Revised Standard Version)

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.  But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

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INTRODUCTION

As we start to wind down toward Summer’s eventual transition to the Fall weather, we still love having our air conditioning.  Especially when humidity rises while the wind falls to nothing.  We begin to swelter.  Air-conditioning becomes of high value.  Most of us remember when central air wasn’t common, and window units abounded, especially in older apartments – like the one Julie and I lived during my seminary days.

During those seminary years in Kentucky, I worked for the seminary’s small maintenance department, and keeping all the window air conditioning units running was a constant effort.  In my second year, a new class had arrived, and one young man had taken a single room apartment where we had installed a new window unit.  We got a call one day from the administrative office.  Why, we thought, would a window unit fall out?  So we drove around to check it out and encountered this young man.  He had been watching a basketball game on TV, but you know how A/C units give off that hum that can make it a little harder to hear the TV?  He had turned it off for that reason, but as his room was on the sunward side of that brick building, it soon began to warm.  Not wanting to deal with the humming of the unit in order to stay cool, he opted instead for fresh air.  He opened the one and only window to his apartment… the one with AC mounted…  Or was, until it made a rapid descent, narrowly missing the car and student who had just parked below his window.  My classmate didn’t want the hum of the A/C, nor did he want to be hot, so he chose the window.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

When the people looked longingly across the River Jordan to their new land, Moses described two choices, that God had “set before you.”   The choices being:  “life and prosperity or death and adversity.”  Two choices, but people and nations often presume there is a third.

FOR INSTANCE

A staple of daytime television for nearly as long as our congregation has met on this land, continues to be “Let’s Make a Deal!”  Monty Hall is long gone, but the show lives on with an audience dressed up just as goofily and doing their best to become the next contestant.  Full of cool prizes and hidden duds, it’s a fulcrum of choice often captured in the look of consternation upon contestants’ faces when a decision has to be made.  We know that the show’s shtick asks whether someone will let go of what they have, for maybe something better behind Door, Curtain, or Box #1, #2, or #3?  One of the deals will be a lemon, one is sorta so-so.  But that’s fantasy, for the choosing of which Moses speaks, reminds us there is only one good choice – not two.

In vs. 17-18, we start out with DOOR NUMBER TWO.  It’s the desire to act as one sees fits with no accountability, “to do what is right in one’s OWN sight,” as the Book of Judges concludes on this sad note [see Judges 21:25].  The Lord says, “if your heart turns away and will NOT hear but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish.”  This isn’t what God hopes for at all, but the logical consequence of self-centered living.  In John 3:35-36, said Jesus, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst… (as Jesus then added) you have seen me and yet do not believe.”

Some just deliberately exclude themselves.

The hope of God is for us to respond to DOOR NUMBER ONE: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God… by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and ordinances, then you shall live…”

Said our Lord, “I am the door.  Whoever enters by me will be saved…” declares Jesus [John 10:9-10], even as  vs.16 speaks of “the good life” we then would know, the good life in which we “thrive and increase, (that) the Lord your God may bless (us)…”  We are not asked “for superhuman effort, but (for) the glad acceptance of grace,” as Paul declared.  That’s why this word is so near us, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart… “ [Romans 10:8-9].  If we begin to think we aren’t capable, that it’s too hard to do, we have but to back up to vs.11“This commandment… is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.”  As Moses took note, in vs. 14, “The word is very near you” – THE WORD we know having been made in the flesh who is Jesus Christ!

So then we come to DOOR NUMBER THREE.  Assuming we pass by the goodness and life of Door Number One and likewise whiz past the obviously poor choice of Door Number Two – we might be among those holding out hope for a mythical Door #3.  That’s the choice that says we can live as though we chose both other doors.  But, there is no door #3.  It is a deception.  It is a lie.  Too often it is acted upon as though it was real.  Even if this choice is not directly spoken of in the reading from Book of Deuteronomy, it’s clearly implied, so much so that the Book of Revelation is direct in dismissing it, saying of such:

 “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.  But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” [Revelations 3:15-17].

When it comes to our spiritual lives, we would deceive ourselves to think we can straddle the line with a third choice.  Even as the freed people of Israel looked longingly across the River Jordan to their new land, Moses described the choices that God had “set before you.”

But choices can fade in memory.  They can get blurred amid life in a larger society.  This is why I’d like us to first take a moment to consider the context of the Book of Deuteronomy, one of the four most quoted books of the New Testament, making its appearance in 20 of 27 books.  Not when it was first written, but later, when King Josiah reigned in Israel.

Becoming king at 8, at 26 years old, Josiah began long needed repairs to the great Temple in Jerusalem, after  decades of increasing neglect [II Chronicles 34-35 and II Kings 22-23].  Amid the rather thorough cleansing of the Temple in preparation for new construction, this book was rediscovered – apparently having been lost and forgotten, unread and thus unlived for perhaps 80 or more years.

Stunningly, all but one of the Temple priests quickly dismissed this book when it was found without even reading it.  As an aside, one might argue this was because a woman had found it and argued for the merits of its teaching.  Nevertheless, it finally made its way up to the king’s secretary.  One might wonder what he thought in his pithy statement to Josiah, saying “Hilhiah, the priest has given me a book” [II Kings 22:10] as he then began to read it.

When the king heard its words, overcome with emotion he tore his own clothes, likely freaking out his secretary, the court, and even the temple priests.  It was crystal clear to him – his nation had wandered from God.

Calling the people together before the Temple, Josiah had the whole of Deuteronomy read to them.  The words having this fundamental choice to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” – or to turn away [Deuteronomy 6:5, later quoted in Matthew 22:37].

When John Heywood coined the phrase four and a half centuries ago, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too…” he was right.

When Abraham Lincoln spoke to our nation’s future more than 160 years ago, saying that “a house divided cannot stand,” he was right.

The choices really are unambiguous.  Life and prosperity.  Death and adversity.  Said Jesus, “No one can serve two masters, he will either hate the one or love the other” [Matthew 6:24].

Choices.

They do matter, don’t they?

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of all of this?

Satan alone is the trickster.  God is straightforward.  Everything is made plain and there’s no hiddenness as to God’s hope for us.  We don’t have to dress up to be noticed and be called forward, as in some TV show, because everyone, along with the nation itself, comes to the river and chooses whom will be served.

If then, we were Josiah reading these once forgotten words, how would we see them apply to us and to our larger society’s value system?  After all, it really is rather obvious in behavior which choices are being made.  Remember that word I quoted from Revelations?  “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.  But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” [Revelations 3:17].

It’s a frank conversation worth having…

Might we be just a bit too self-satisfied with our own lot that we forget not just our dependence upon God, but also his call for us to be just and merciful to others in their own dependency?

Might we have forgotten that God holds not only individuals, but nations accountable, and we should be leading the discussion of some serious soul-searching in an age marked with tax cuts for the wealthy while tightening further help to the poorest, the sickest, and immigrants?

When we stand before the doors, how will you and I choose?  And what if our choice means hearing the uncomfortable answers that take us outside what our privileges afford us, whatever they may be, if we are to do the hard work of bettering the lives of all?  How, after all, will we apply our choosing?

At the river’s edge, which “door” – will we choose?

Amen.

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“Noticing”

blogphoto*Preached on 01 September 2019 (“Labor Day”), at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Like many sermon, when I start reading I find myself taken on a journey of discovery, but as most preachers will admit, we preach as much to ourselves as anyone – if we embrace the texts wisely and with humility.  We are all students.  There is only one Master.  -Blessings, Vinson

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Gospel of Luke 14:1-14 (New Revised Standard Version)

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.  Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy.  And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?”  But they were silent.  So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away.  Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?”  And they could not reply to this.  When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.  “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.  But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

For a marvelous audiovisual telling of this reading, click HERE:  Gospel of Luke 14:1-24

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INTRODUCTION

Jesus was on a roll, generating one controversy after another, as is obvious in reading the Gospel of Luke.  Especially on the sabbath.  Today’s reading from the 14th chapter marks the 6th sabbath day event the gospel writer records and now the 4th sabbath on which Jesus healed someone.  Unfortunately, the lectionary excludes the second to sixth verses and cuts off a bit short, but these matter much as to context.

The first verse has already clued us in… though an invited guest, Jesus is being watched closely.  This isn’t the kind of relaxed after worship gathering like we would have, but a more formalized and ritualized dinner.  Jesus had been invited as the guest of someone akin to what we might call a regional minister or a bishop.

Food plays such a conspicuous role in the Bible.  There are stories in the New Testament about feeding the multitudes, eating with dirty utensils, which foods are ritually clean or unclean and why, whether a believer could eat meat that had been dedicated to pagan idols and bought at the local market, the poor begging crumbs from the rich, and of course the Lord’s Supper.  Food is a metaphor for power that builds or destroys human community.

So it is that as Jesus and the pharisees and others were lining up to go in, as Jesus notices something.  A man ahead of him has “dropsy,” which until the past century, was how folks described the medical condition when a body has gained fluid as part of either congestive heart failure or kidney disease.  Not an emergency, but certainly not a healthy future.  Sure, it could have waited just like the other healings Jesus had done on previous sabbaths which Luke recounts [Luke 4;31-37; 6:6-11; 13:10-17], but we are talking Jesus and the centrality of God IN the sabbath.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Jesus is always noticing and he is never a passive listener nor speaker.  After all, the very nature of God is to take notice, all the way back to when God took notice Adam and Eve hadn’t responded to His voice and he found them hiding behind some bushes.  God is a curious God, but it’s a curiosity that is always about reorienting the lives of people.  The healing of dropsy wasn’t simply a medical event, a stop on the way in the door as a random event or distracted moment.  It’s actually the way Luke introduces the topic most on the mind of Jesus in the body of our reading: how can we as the religious folk on scene, capture his vision for generosity and inclusiveness of spirit and deed?

FOR INSTANCE

The first clue comes in the Greek language of the Gospel, where dropsy means something like “waterlogged,” even as the afflicted has an insatiable thirst and consumes more fluid.  In Jesus’ day, the term served as a well-recognized metaphor, one the readers of Luke would quickly pick up on:  dropsy was used as a label for the greedy, as Jesus acts to heal the man of that spiritual disease.  After all, for God so loved the WORLD… not just the righteous that in John 3:17 it is written of Jesus, “he came not to condemn, but to save.”  Today, the mission was saving those lost in the very world of selfishness that Satan had tempted Jesus with, during his temptation in the wilderness.

However, not all will hear this as Good News, for this Jesus stirs controversy with challenges to an entrenched transactional society and religious establishment that has allied itself with the power structure.  In an age when tax collectors used their legal authority not just to collect taxes due, but to immorally enrich themselves beyond justification, consider how today’s reading is set squarely between Luke 5:27-32, where Jesus both spoke with the tax collector Levi and accepted his excited invitation to be the guest of honor at a party he ran off to organize at his home, and another equally scurrilous tax collector named Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 who did the very same thing, such was his excitement.

As Luke adds, “… the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples…” about Jesus’ choice of company.  After the second event, they attempted to tar Jesus as a glutton and a drunkard, simply because he dined with folk who were the outsiders.  But as Jesus noted: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”  Each time, they didn’t recognize the implications – Jesus also saw those religious folks’ spirituality as devoid of God’s way of mercy and justice, as needing a doctor.  They didn’t see it, but in examining these who had aligned themselves to earthly power and not God’s value system, Luke 14 brings us to the table with the fat cats who were never satisfied in their thirst for more than they ever needed.

Not one to ever turn down an invite, as the Greek of verse 1 says, Jesus went “to eat bread.”  Then, as now, we learn a lot about people when we sit down to eat.  We are all a lot more transparent about ourselves at table; aren’t we?

One might imagine a wry look as Jesus then quickly took note of the jostling for the best seats, the ones closest to power, to influence, to prestige.  Some was probably subtle, some – hmm, probably not so much.

If Jesus had already started things moving by noticing the man who was ill, and the apparent lack of compassion for healing because of legalism, now Jesus notices how guests sought out ‘favored” seats as a mark of the absence of humility in their lives.  Proximity to the host communicated to everyone their social rank.  It was about power and prestige among those with that insatiable thirst for more.

Jesus then observes, “You know, I was just thinking…. When someone invites you to a special event, don’t go for the head table or you are going to find yourself really embarrassed when you’re asked to get up and move to the back.”    Now…Can’t you just imagine some folks’ faces flushing, knowing they had been tagged by Jesus for greedy their spirits, and now trying their best to not look too obvious as they scurried for a seat further from the host?

I have to wonder if the host found this somewhat amusing, watching people scamper, that is until he himself becomes the subject when Jesus critiques him for his guest list.  “When you throw a party, if you want a real party, a party where God is at the center, don’t invite the relatives, the buddies, and the well-connected.  Invite the poor, the blind, the crippled.”  I can almost hear the dot… dot… dot… of inclusivity.  Nothing had gone unnoticed by Jesus as to who was invited and who wasn’t.  The party God throws isn’t exclusive, and it most certainly isn’t transactional.

Such a pointed leveling that eliminates the disparity of privilege is uncomfortable for those who are used to high perches.  One guest tries to regain control of the narrative, perhaps in an effort to ingratiate himself with the host, given that any plan to “manage” Jesus had now fallen apart.  He blurts out what sounds pious and pithy: “Blessed is the man who eats at the feast in the kingdom of God!”

While that’s true on the face of it, his true motivation is seen by Jesus.

Hasn’t there been a moment when we have tried to change a topic to one that is more happy or comfortable, especially when something touches upon our pain, our sins, or our failures of character?  We look for a distraction as we say, “How about them Cowboys… Patriots… Steelers…?  Or maybe, it’s “Wonder what’s going to happen with this hurricane?”

If we’re honest, who among us wants to sit with words that make us squirm?

Yet, Jesus knows the only party worth having is the one that lifts up God’s vision of genuine justice and authentic joy, as he turns around that whole “Speaking of the kingdom of God…” comment, to now speak of what God’s feast actually looks like.

It’s a party which sees those who lean upon their position and power miss out, when more absorbed with themselves than God’s kind of kingdom.

It’s a party which celebrates the joyous breaking bread with the least, the last, and the lost people of this world…. a party that brings joy to those no longer excluded and joy to the heart of God!

It’s a party – THE PARTY – which was announced at the outset of the Gospel of Luke, when the mother-to-be, Mary, sang of the very will of God for human life:

“He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.”  [Luke 1:51-53]

It’s a party for the upside down Kingdom of God, a party worth attending if we want to encounter real joy, unexpected joy, radiant joy – the kind of joy found in those who go open the door and seek out the lowly, the hungry, the poor, the disenfranchised of the World.

It’s a party which puts me in mind of a drawing I came across this week, one that showed three kids of differing heights.  Each stood upon a box, but the boxes weren’t of equal height.  Instead, each was of such height sufficient to grant each the same tallness – given an equal invitation to look past a fence into a baseball game.  It is what our teachers among us would call “differentiation,” in equipping each child with what they need most.

SO WHAT?

It’s a party that is around us, and we sometimes…. Well, we just… MISS it.

Yesterday, I was sitting at a Hardee’s up in Grafton drinking iced tea, doing some edits on what I would say today.  A gentleman was speaking to everyone, friendly, trying to engage.  Retired from the Air Force he said.  Doc Land, he called himself.  I spoke to him a bit, but my mind was so much on the sermon and other things that I did not close my laptop and invite him to sit and talk.  I had things to do, after all, I told myself.  A few minutes later he wandered out and I said a prayer for him as I glanced up and saw his back to me, walking across the pavement.

A little while later, he was back and I spoke to him.  Again, however, I was concentrating on today’s doings so much, that I kept the conversation short.  After he made the rounds of speaking with everyone, as he walked out again, he called me “Doc” and gave a cheery goodbye.

Then, a moment later, I felt the thunderclap in my soul.  He was gone from sight and I realized I had been given not one, but two chances and blown them both.

We do that sometimes, don’t we?  I so hoped he would come back, so I could set things aside and just focus on him.  It was not to be.

The Lord invites us to His party.  All the time.  Every day.  A party where we make space for His people.

We’re not always going to get it right, and the table of which we partake is a tangible reminder of our ongoing need of grace.  But, if there is anything that today is telling me… and you… it HAS to be of Jesus’ hope that we EACH recognize when the invite comes from unexpected directions, and that we become like Him – a people of the invitation.  That’s where the joy is, after all!

Amen.

“Unshackled!”

blogphoto*Sermon preached on 25 August 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Honestly, this is one of those texts and sermons I would love to just sit and talk through – vice preach – it is such a rich, poignant text that has so many possibilities for discussion.  So, when you read it… just take time for each piece to soak a bit in the ground before moving on.  Re-read the creation narrative and God calling things “Good!” Then ask yourself why it’s hard for us to celebrate the “good” done for others?  Or why animals will gain sympathy, but a woman would not?  If God’s grace in Christ is truly amazing, we likewise do well to ponder the story,,, and who we identify with in various places….  Blessings, Vinson

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Gospel of Luke 13:10-17 (New Revised Standard Version)

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.  And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.  But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”  But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”  When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

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INTRODUCTION

On this day there was perhaps a bit of a buzz with Jesus present.  The crowd made up of mostly observant Jews with a smattering of Gentiles who feared God or were attracted to the moral teachings of Jewish law.  Sure, there was word of Jesus being at the synagogue, but like decades ago in Virginia, when there were the “Blue Laws,” when everything was closed on Sundays, in this village everything would have been shut down for the sabbath and most folk would have been found at weekly worship.

The woman had already missed the opening of the service with the recitation of the shema – the confession of faith of Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.  Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever,” as it continued with the words of Deuteronomy 6:5-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and then Numbers 15:37-41.  She would have also missed the readings from the Law and the Prophets, along with the prayer and thanksgiving that would have followed, walking in late, with Jesus already amid teaching and perhaps not sure what he was expounding upon.

Now think for a moment about this kind of entrance.

If any of us were so late as to not get here until during the sermon, would we have even bothered to enter into the service?  {PAUSE}  We’d be embarrassed or whatever else, I expect.  At least from my perspective, even the last portion still matters, but if we were late… would we think so?  In the end, she came on in, amid Jesus’ teaching.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

So it is that the Gospel reading implies some questions, between the lines of the text, for us to ponder amid our over-familiarity with Sunday worship, such as:  What has us struggling in life?  What kind of expectations do we bring before the Lord and just how might our vision on life be changed by encountering Jesus?

FOR INSTANCE

Writes Luke, “…there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 

After 18 years she had certainly become used to the routine of the life she endured, as she made her way in, others parting to let her through as she sat among the women, at the back of the synagogue as that’s likely where the women would have been seated or standing.  In the shadows.

She didn’t approach him.  Instead, Jesus noticed her.  She is called up front.

Imagine for a moment, a life of being looked upon… with pity by some… maybe judgment by others… visible with affliction and now the center of attention by a prominent guest preacher.

“When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’  When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

She makes no request, gives no plea, begs for no help, and makes no apology for being tardy.  She is wordless.  Like most of us, if we are honest, self-conscious about asking for ourselves on any given Sunday morning.  Am I right?

We certainly aren’t told by Luke, the narrator, if she was anxious at being called up to the front.  Nor are we told if she came forward with any hopes.  There is just silence upon her lips, until Jesus speaks the word of healing.

Then things go sideways as the leader of the synagogue interrupts that sacred moment with something of an indirect rebuke to Jesus, when he addresses the synagogue – exercising an attempt to control the message of Jesus.  Now I’m not really convinced the leader is a “bad guy,” but as the one responsible for upholding what is holy he appears stuck on the letter of the Law instead of its spirit, where Exodus 31:14 speaks of keeping the sabbath holy as a day of rest.  It’s like there is a veil over his spiritual eyesight and the words of the Torah that are intended to reveal God’s will for wholeness has instead become a blinder that’s his infirmity of judgment and every bit as constricting of his spirit as physical disease was to the woman’s body.

He cannot celebrate what God has pronounced as “good.”

We might speculate he was thinking there’s no emergency after 18 years, no immediate danger, so no reason to act – the exception to the sabbath rule being action only to prevent an evil.  After all, in a few hours the sun would be down and sabbath over – so if she’s already waited for 18 years, can’t she until then?  It’s not like she isn’t late, so what’s the hurry?  He doesn’t perceive the evil of leaving someone in an unjust situation.

As for the woman?

Maybe she was one of those who are chronically late.

Maybe it just took a long time for her to walk the distance from her home.

Maybe she was just tired of being asked if her back was any better, and it was just so much easier on her spirit to slide in late and avoid the well-meant or simply questions of curiosity.

Maybe she had gone back and forth in her mind, curious about this new teacher, before finally deciding to go – even if she would be severely late.

Maybe she had grown bitter in her pain and was making a point by creating a bit of a stir as a physical interruption to Jesus’ teaching.

We are not told why she was late.

We do know, having been through, or been with others through physical suffering, how suffering can really wear down the spirit, as fatigue sets in.

We do know that whether seeking the peace of acceptance or hope for change – either can sometimes seem rather elusive.

18 years.  Half of the average lifespan in the days of Jesus.  18 years of being bent over, of having to look at people sideways when talking, of seeing the world constrained, of knowing no other future.  18 years of getting used to a present that’s also the future without mention by Luke, the ever-observant physician, of any previous attempts at cures as she apparently had not the means for what then passed for medical care.

Think of the perspective this woman had lived, bent over in life… in body… in spirit… with the disease process not just involving her spine, but her spiritual life as one never being able to look anyone in the eye and perhaps of not being free to take her rightful place among any ordinary crowd.  She who had been broken in spirit as much as much as with pain and physical deformity.  People can be so unkind.  Some would make fun of her.  With no husband mentioned, she may have been rejected… we just don’t know.

What we do know is that when suffering goes on month after month, year after year, it isn’t uncommon to think less of oneself.  Denied the dignity that should be the lot of each person, a stand-in for everyone of us who has experienced impediments and restrictions.  After 18 years, I would wonder if there was even a thought as to how her vision of the world could be changed that day.

And here’s the thing…. Jesus did not ask the woman what she can bear, what she is used to, or what she will settle for.  Nor are there the unhelpful pep talk phrases that may feel good for the speaker but not the listener.  There is only the Lord’s desire to restore a person’s life to her proper stature and that she can now be able to look our Lord in the eye.

Thus Jesus adds:

And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

People matter.

The phrase “daughter of Abraham” is no trite phrase, but the potent reminder that whether she is late or crippled or whatever else is going on – she is a member of the covenant community and this NATURALLY worthy of compassion.

So when challenged, it’s no wonder then that Jesus doesn’t let it pass but responds with the same kind of edge with the synagogue leader he does elsewhere with Martha, Peter, and even his own mother – when they get in the way of the work of the Kingdom:

Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?

On this Sunday, poignant with history in Hampton in remembering the introduction of slavery 400 years ago this weekend upon these very shores, we are freshly reminded of the evils that regularly attack the worth of human beings.

Those evils in the past, like slavery.

Those evils in the present, like racism, sexism, and a host of other offenses which diminish people.

Those evils in the present which devalue, demean, injure, and isolate – whether of the body, mind or spirit – denying the full measure of living.

Jesus did not then and does not now let this pass unchallenged – inviting us to hear the words of freedom… to live in His joy… to praise God who has given us the song of freedom in His world!

SO WHAT?

If, as another has written, “Sometimes we see ourselves as hopeless, as failures, as cripples, as defeated, as small in our own eyes and in the eyes of others,” we also “…hear Jesus call (us), ‘My son,’ ‘my daughter,’ ‘daughter of Abraham,’ ‘child of God.’” [Sacred Space]

And so if “…Jesus loves me, then I CAN be someone to be proud of.  I can change. I can leave the past behind.  If God is for me, then who can be against me?”  Each is therefore a son or daughter of Abraham , and in the gathering in Christ’s community – an acceptance of God’s love that generously gifts such acceptance to other sons and daughters.

“Daughter of Abraham,” says our Lord, “you’ve been bent over too long.  Stand up, hold your head up and your healed back erect, for you ARE a child of God!”

Son of Abraham, straighten up and experience the unshackling of your spirit from that which cripples, for you ARE a child of God!

Amen!

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Notes:  Sacred Space, “Luke 13:10-17.”  Accessed on 23 August 2019 at: https://www.sacredspace.ie/scripture/luke-1310-17-0

“Picturing Faith”

blogphoto*Preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 18 August 2019.  As the late William Barclay put it, “The honour roll of history is of people who chose to be in God’s minority rather than with the world’s majority.”  It is an honor roll of the known and mostly unknown, who have found gratitude for the life God gives.  -Vinson

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Letter to the Hebrews 11:29-12:2 (New Revised Standard Version)

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.  By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.  By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.  And what more should I say?  For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Women received their dead by resurrection.  Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.   Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

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INTRODUCTION

Dad was a “photobug” with Ektachrome, the slides are now scattered among my siblings and me.  He wasn’t much for the old style photo albums like my Mom, and once or twice a year Dad would get out the slide projector and away we would go.  I think the best slide show of all was when Dad took photos of my dog Peanuts for my Mom who made up for her music classes a marvelous story of my dog trying to figure out who and what she was.  Given she was a pretty homely combination of Dachshund and Chihuahua, it took a lot of slides and a lot of music.

Photos nearly ALWAYS elicit a story… about a pet… a person… a funny or a sad adventure.  They are about life as, they stir remembrances.  Having scanned countless old family photographs and organized them, at times it is amazing to see what traits and characteristics pass through the generations.  It’s like when my daughter was three, Julie wanted to see what I looked like without my mustache again.  She had only seen me without it for a few days, at the end of Chaplains School in 1993.  Having finally reunited our family as I had immediately deployed, she now wanted to decide if I actually looked better without it.  So I muttered and shaved it off.  A week went by and our daughter, all of three, then said to me one day that I needed to regrow my mustache.  I asked her why, to which she responded, “Daddy, it’s your nose, it’s too big without it!”  Besides our daughter being rather observant, it’s also very clear that I have my Grandmother Miller’s nose, just like my Dad did, and at last it finally found a face it has fit on the best:  our son!  Ah… family legacies!

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Humor aside,  in a sense, the words the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews are really much like a spiritual family photo album, albeit one that isn’t descriptive of physical traits but of the spiritual courage even amid darkness of an untold cast of spiritual forebears.  In this lineage, we find our own humanity… and counsel for the lives we live as followers of Jesus.

FOR EXAMPLE

So it is that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews elicits remembrances of those in the long story of successive generations of faith, whether those listed in the verses previous to today’s reading – such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses – as much as those in our reading who came after the Exodus, like Rahab who welcomed the scouts sent by Joshua, Sampson whose strength honored God, Daniel who shut the mouths of lions, Gideon who was a just and valiant warrior, and Esther who skillfully maneuvered to ensure the survival of the exiled people of Israel.

But because the span of faith is also made up of those unknown to us, the author acknowledges the nameless and extensive list of those who found themselves tortured, mocked, scourged, and tormented for and while holding faith in God.  I suppose this is an irony of the Letter to the Hebrews, as the one book in the New Testament that bears no author’s name, with attempts all the way back to the 3rd century, of ascribing it to Paul, even though its writing style is vastly different than his own… and Paul was always VERY clear as to putting his name what he wrote!  There is actually good reason to suspect it was written by a woman and when the early church moved away from prominent roles for women, if such a name was associated with Hebrews, it may well have disappeared.  The leading theory is that it was written by Priscilla of Rome, one who had been expelled along with other Jews by order of the Emperor, ending up in Corinth and making missionary journeys around the Mediterranean, before finally returning to Rome.  Personally, I think this makes the most sense, but again – this is looking at what facts do exist and fitting them together in a rather incomplete puzzle.

Nevertheless, one can only imagine how with each name, there was that air of recognition with their story coming to mind and resonating, just as much as our long-gone family members and friends.  Maybe it is just as well that in this journey of faith as Hebrews lists a veritable “Who’s Who” of the Old Testament laying the foundation for the fullness of God’s promises in Christ our Lord, that the author remains unknown!  And, if there are the names of those like Abraham or David or Daniel that have the “wow” factor, this mix of the honored also includes Rehab, a Canaanite women whose description is one of an innkeeper who ran a brothel [see Joshua 2:9-13] and yet who along with her family is brought into the people of Israel… becoming mother of Boaz who married Ruth, great-grandmother to King David and some 30 generations later… the so many greats-grandmother of Jesus [per genealogy in Matthew 1].  This is no accident of scripture, but the potent reminder to not dismiss anyone, including ourselves, as being part of the long narrative of God’s redemptive work over the millenniums.

We must also take note that in all of these images, there are those of both  triumph and of suffering.  Hebrews stands, therefore, in opposition to the assertion that one’s fate while on earth is a direct reflection of one’s spirituality.  I think this is important, as those who live in a culture that bandies people about as winners and losers, successes or failures – blaming the victim and lauding the victor.  This misses the larger truth, as written in Hebrews, for some “…did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” [Hebrews 11:13].

I suspect that the folks who first heard the letter read aloud to them were very needful of this encouragement, in an age when there was excessive pressure upon them to renounce their faith in Jesus as the Christ, and thus return to their former lives as Jews.  In the words of the late William Barkley:

“The intermingled categories are a word of encouragement for struggling Christians.  If we are struggling, and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is suffering, we might despair.  Must our suffering continue forever?  If we are struggling and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is triumph and victory, what hope is there for us?  But the mixing of suffering and triumph gives us a word of hope:  faithfulness shines both in suffering and in triumph, both in sorrow and in joy.”

But what if what’s next doesn’t seem close enough, and the cloud of witnesses, our perseverance, and our self-sacrifice just seem to come up short?

What if we aren’t so sure we can hold out to the end of the race, as in our humanity, fatigue sets in with the finish line a mile too far?

Having learned faith is about endurance as much as anything else, trusting in God’s eternal promises even amid circumstances that make one wonder if the promises are true, what if we just fear coming up short?

In the face of suffering – however suffering is experienced, including the sense of just being disconnected – how does faith nevertheless hold on for the certainty of a future in which God has something better in store?

We may well be full of such questions, each perhaps worthy of an extended and lengthy answer, but instead the writer of Hebrews holds up one last photo to us, the most important one, saying “Let us run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” [Hebrews 12:1].  Pioneer is the translation of  the Greek word, “archegos” – a word for author… beginner… instigator… impetus… trailblazer.  In the Greek games which are a cultural reference for the author writing from Rome, the team captain would run the race ahead of the team being the encouragement to his teammates as they followed in his steps.

For the first hearers of the Letter to the Hebrews it would have reminded them of Joshua, son of Nun, who scouted out the Promised Land for the people of the Exodus.  Now, it is Jesus who blazes a new trail through all of human existence and tested in every way like all of us, “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” [Hebrews 12:2].  The one who carries us the distance we cannot attain – in his joy.

For the first hearers of the Letter to the Hebrews it would have also reminded them of Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the first high priest after the exile, who came before the full presence of God, the needs of the people.  Now it is Jesus not only calls us across the finish line, but comes before God on our behalf, completing us where we lack that our faith may be whole.  Thus, when we feel the wear of the journey of faith… when we wonder:  Can we hold on?  Can we make it?  There is THIS word… that what we cannot do, Jesus has already accomplished.

SO WHAT

So what do we make of all of this?  I missed the broadcast, but Jacque was thoughtful enough to send me the link of the thoughtful comedian Stephen Colbert talking with Anderson Cooper, whose mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, recently died.  Colbert was 11 years old when he lost his father and brothers in a plane crash, with Cooper being the same age when his own father died and his brother committed suicide.  Reading aloud something Colbert said of himself on another occasion, that he “had learned to love the thing I most wished had not happened,” Cooper kind of choked up.  Clearly grieving hard the death of his mother, which reawakened those earlier losses, Cooper asked of Colbert, who not infrequently alludes to his Christian faith and can quote scripture as well as any preacher, whether he really believed the quote from Tolkien that “what punishment of gods are not gifts?”

A gentle smile crossed Colbert’s face and he replied:

“If you’re grateful for your life …not everybody is and I’m not always, but it’s the most positive thing to do, then you have to be grateful for ALL of it.  You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.”

It was how, Colbert went on to share, he had discovered suffering is the one thing which affords us the deepest connection with other human beings… to his wife… his children… perfect strangers… and ultimately with God.

Colbert then added a few moments later,

“That’s the great gift of the sacrifice of Christ, is that God does it too.  That you’re really not alone.”

Amen.

 

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Sources:  William Barclay.  Daily Study Bible: Hebrews. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976).  Relevant. “Stephen Colbert’s Deeply Moving Conversation About God and Grief Is Required Viewing.”  16 August 2019, accessed on 17 August 2019 at: https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/stephen-colberts-deeply-moving-conversation-about-god-and-grief-is-required-viewing/?fbclid=IwAR38hFICkSDC_6QZLoUCQKLWYdxN6w46a_2lCm09h2ghRjyn7nD88Yzbfyc

 

“Listening Hands”

Slide1*Preached on 11 August 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Admittedly, the lectionary brings us to a tough text, but one highly relevant to our lives and times.  As always, I welcome your comments and your own insights. -Vinson

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Book of Isaiah 1:1,10-20 (New Revised Standard Version)

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear the word of the Lord,
    you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
    learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be devoured by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

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INTRODUCTION

A few short months after Julie and I were married on a hot August day in the mountains of North Carolina, I preached my first sermon.  Ever.  Being so newly married, I thought I’d use the 13th chapter of First Corinthians.  Who better than a newlywed to cover the whole description of God’s love in 15 minutes flat?!  Well, for a first effort, I expect it passed.  Not because it was so finely written and spoken, but because that very Sunday I realized those folk loved Julie and I, and in the months to come, we would learn that over the years those kind folk had come to see one of their missions as simply loving and thus equipping student ministers as they learned.  As for me?  36 years later, if I was to preach on that same word of Paul to the Corinthian community, I’d probably start out with the word: “Listen.”  The longer I’ve walked in faith and the longer I’ve walked with Julie, it’s because I have come to realize that no relationship can truly flourish without that dynamic of “listening” sustained at its core.

Listening, isn’t going through the well-rehearsed motions, whether it’s doing the dishes, cooking, doing laundry, mowing yards and all the like, no more than it is singing hymns, saying together the Lord’s Prayer and breaking bread at table.  Doing what’s religious is doing the routine, while doing spirituality is listening… paying attention to what is actually needed. It’s living a life of hearing and doing in response to the One who loves us, a life that not merely claims mercy for ourselves but actively seeks to be merciful to others.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because it’s the absence of this divine listening which lies at the heart of what Isaiah is trying to get across, as to what’s been missing in the covenantal relationship between God and the people, and why God challenges their perceived faithfulness.

FOR INSTANCE

By way of background, I think if we are to grasp the words of Isaiah, a good starting place is found in Genesis 16:11, when “shema,” the Hebrew word for “hear” first appears in sacred text.  This isn’t just some randomly used word.  Hagar is driven out into the wilderness at the behest of Sarah.  Exhausted and fearful, she is “by a spring in the wilderness” when an angel speaks to her, assuring Hagar that she will bear a son, one whom she will call Ishmael – which literally means “God will hear.”  We may remember that after Ishmael is born, Sarah succeeded in persuading Abraham to permanently banish both mother and child, and so again wandering in the desert, Hagar finds herself hopeless and cries, anticipating Ishmael’s death.  This word “hear” then reappears in Genesis 21:17, for God has “heard the cry of the boy,” and then helps Hagar to find water so that mother and child are saved.  From this earliest time, God’s listening is thus seen as inseparable from then doing what is just.

God is not a passive listener — when and where people are not treated with mercy —  so, in Isaiah, God’s intent can best be put as: “Come, let us CORRECT this situation!  NOW!”  As one commemorator has put it:  “One can almost picture the effect:  people standing with mouths open in disbelief asking, ‘But why?’”  Not much different from our Gospel reading when Peter asks, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”

Can’t you just hear the cries of innocence?

Pleas that they HAVE been obedient, clockwork in bringing sacrifices and offerings, faithful in Temple attendance, dutiful in their prayers, observant of the Holy Days.

But then Isaiah drops a bomb on them, saying: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!”  Talk about a poke in the eye, in words that foreshadow what Ezekiel would later write [Ezekiel 16:49] of how God moved to end the “outrage” because “…Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  They were haughty…”   This is the accusation of injustice hanging in the air.

Now THAT would have anyone’s attention and certainly theirs, as Isaiah moves on to what can only be described as a truly penetrating question, intended to pierce any self-justification, speaking the word of God:  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” [Isaiah 1:10].

Shock upon shock!  I would imagine this took them by surprise.  “Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” [Isaiah 1:12-13].  What should be a sweet smell, stinks.  Offerings that should be valuable, worthless.  Holy days, beyond endurance.  Festivals, joyless.”

Let’s be honest, from the time we are young, we memorize the rules.  Play by them.  Work by them.  Things can roll along, all the boxes checked, but then there is that question that catches. I know, for instance, I’ve had those moments when Julie has said, “I need you to look at me, as she then made an observation or asked a question.”  It seems to me that Isaiah is asking each of us to look at God, hear the question clearly, and do some real soul-searching.  Not merely about our love and worship of God, but HOW that is lived out in daily life.  How we PRACTICE JUSTICE– especially when it is entirely too easy to get comfortable and to grow blind.

We must have this conversation in our nation right now and there is no better place to really dwell on it than in church, as the people of God.  It isn’t, however, a fun conversation.  [*Note: I made an aside that as the child of a community Civil Rights leader in  Eastern NC in the late 1960s, I really don’t enjoy going through this again.]  I think this is one reason the whole “White supremacy” conversation goes sideways at times, as a blind spot for many of us.  Every once in a while though, something bursts that bubble of self-delusion.  It’s like when I was standing in a line in McDonald’s and the cashier looked around the African-American woman in front of me, to ask my order.  I had to point to the woman and say, “She’s ahead of me.”  That’s when it sunk in as to what really was in play.  It’s like if we thought about what would have happened if the guy who walked into a Missouri Walmart two days ago wearing a bulletproof vest, carrying an AK-47 and a sidearm, supposedly to “test” his right to open carry in that state… if he had not been White, but instead a person of color?  Or, what would it be like for my friend, Rev. Sandhya Jha, a Disciples of Christ minister, if she wasn’t a person of color going through TSA, where EVERY time, in spite of her “fast pass” TSA Known Traveler Number, she gets pulled for a more thorough screening?  We supposedly embrace our national creed that “all (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  But it sure makes a difference as to skin color, doesn’t it?  We are just kidding ourselves if we don’t every day see the incremental and the great, injustices upon others.

Russel Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, is perhaps one of the strongest voices on ethics in our nation.  This week he published an unflinching word as to this scourge that has a long history in our nation, and like a perennial infection, is showing itself boldly right now, going beyond privilege but possessing a belief that denies the equality of people – a scourge which we, as church, must recognize exactly for the evil it is, as Moore writes:

White nationalism is not just another ideology, in a world filled with competing opinions.  White nationalism is a manifestation of an ancient evil that we as Christians, of all people, ought to recognize immediately.  White nationalism emerges from what the Bible calls “the way of the flesh.”  This is a form of idolatry that exalts one’s own creaturely attributes, making a god out of, for instance, one’s ancestral origins or one’s tribal culture.  This is not incidental to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but is precisely what the gospel everywhere in the Bible confronts and condemns.  John the Baptist confronts this anti-gospel on the banks of the Jordan River (Matthew 3:9), and the Apostle Paul does so in an Athens filled with pagan Grecian-superiority origin myths (Acts 17:26-27).  Much of the New Testament is a deconstruction of this satanic pull to the exaltation of the flesh.  The gospel does not merely reconcile isolated individuals to God, but the gospel also forms a new people who demonstrate the kingdom of God by those carnal dividing walls being torn down (Ephesians 3:1-12), such that within the gospel-formed church “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Lest we forget, Moore adds:

That’s why Jesus announced his ministry by explicitly denouncing the idea that God’s mission is, or ever has been, limited by racial, cultural, or tribal boundaries (Luke 4:24-27).  The people loved what Jesus was saying, until he touched on issues of race and nationality, and then they were “filled with wrath” and sought to throw him off of a cliff (Luke 4:28-29).  No doubt many accused him of “distracting” them from the Word of God by talking about “justice” and (other) such (uncomfortable) things.

Does that sound at all familiar as to what is happening now in our nation?

I am the first to say, I’d enjoy the escape from this hard stuff.  It would be easier to just keep it outside our conversation, even outside our doors, –to just enjoy our worship, sing our hymns, pray our prayers, be profoundly comfortable and grateful for the friendship and support of each other we find here – all truly commendable.  But, this would be more than incomplete worship and faith living in a bubble, it would be to live disconnected from God’s true vision of reconciliation.  If reconciliation with God comes as His free gift – unearned, undeserved, implicit in our reading from Isaiah, explicit in the Gospel of Jesus Christ – then we cannot affirm salvation by grace alone while not equally connecting grace to justice for all… not if we are to hold to the message of Jesus’ teaching [see Matthew 18].  Being a Christ-follower isn’t merely refrain from what are overtly evil actions, but being a deliberate counter-balance through positive efforts of justice for those who suffer.  Having faith in Jesus Christ isn’t a call to a pietistic experience apart from the lot of others where we can walk by on the other side of the road, it exists not in a vacuum, but in the action of good people, like the Good Samaritan.  That’s why, as we read Isaiah, we hear how God holds forth this verdict of “guilty” before the people, not to exact punishment, but as a path to reconciliation – if our worship is to have meaning.

SO WHAT?

“Seek justice. Relieve the oppressed. Judge the fatherless. Plead for the widow” [Isaiah 1:17b]  Using his personal name of Yahweh, God spells out what it means “to do good” and starts with to “seek justice.”  As God is just [see Deuteronomy 32:4], so God’s people are to be just – both those in governance and the community as a whole, as verse 10 makes clear.  Rulers have an obligation to render impartial justice [see Job 34:17-19], and are to guard the rights of the poor and needy [see Psalm 82:3; Jeremiah 5:28].  But we cannot dare just palm responsibility off on those who make the laws and see to their execution, not if we hear the words of Micah 6:8 that call upon us all to do justice and to walk with humility before God.  Concern for the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, and any who are vulnerable is at the forefront of God’s call for justice and witnessed to in Christ’s own words [see Matthew 25:31-46].  If those who rule can affect justice on a broad scale by passing just laws and enforcing them justly, all of us have the power to act justly on a one to one personal level and to push for justice in our community and throughout our nation.

So let us join in the words of Russell Moore, “Let’s grieve our fallen neighbors.  Let’s work together to stop such atrocities from happening in the future.  And let’s also, as Christians, be very clear about what this ideology is.  White nationalism is on the rise, and is headed for a confrontation with the gospel of a crucified Rabbi from Galilee……….

THE GOSPEL WILL WIN.”

Amen!

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Citation:  Russell Moore. “White Nationalist Terrorism and the Gospel,” 06 August 2019.  Accessed on 07 August 2019 at:  https://www.russellmoore.com/2019/08/06/white-nationalist-terrorism-and-the-gospel/?fbclid=IwAR1JGI8s9Qcs1_o6mYA6KnfuQVte15SiFkEbD2-wmTMTkPQ3fLlvIPeL_TM

“The Fruit of Selfishness: Evil”

Presentation1*Sermon preached on 04 August 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Like pastors across the nation, I changed a chunk of my sermon in the waking of the mass killing in El Paso, Texas, only to wake up to a second event in Dayton, Ohio.  Yet, the Gospel always speaks, sometimes in ways we don’t anticipate.  For those present or not, the ending of the sermon was without notes, so I have done what I can to approximate what I said, and I am sure some on the spot edits aren’t reflected here.  It is past time to challenge the perspective that is contrary to the values of God and which are inflicting harm in many respects. – Vinson

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Gospel of Luke 12:13-21 (New Revised Standard Version)

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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INTRODUCTION

Decades ago, I remember a family of five siblings whose aged mother had passed onto the Lord.  Yet, for all her holiness, like the Biblical priest Eli, her children had not absorbed her example and her teachings of God.  It was pretty clear as they soon made legal war on each other over the land, the house, everything.  It became two sides within months, that soon escalated into trespassing and counter trespassing charges, human waste being flung over a new fence line between a brother and sister’s homes and mockery of one whose son had committed suicide by putting up nooses on his land that she had to drive by every day.  It was beyond tragic.  Within the scope of our lifetimes, I have no doubt, we’ve all seen how an inheritance can divide families.  We have seen, like in Luke 12, how greed — the desire to have more than what one had been given – has played out.

We don’t know why the man has come to Jesus to divide the property, as such matters usually were resolved at the city gates among the elders.  Maybe the man didn’t get the answer he sought there, but regardless, my hunch is that Luke, ever the teacher, is using this as a way of speaking to issues that had arisen in the early church community.  We need only look at the Book of Acts, where “possessions” were often held in common and “distributed” to those in need [4:35], and yet problems developed with the daily distribution of food [6:1] when some felt that others received more than their fair share.

How quickly resentments emerge… over things.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

How might we hear that inner voice of the selfishness in the “rich man” in our own time… as those who follow Jesus?  How might we hear it on a morning that we wake to hear of a second mass shooting, adding to El Paso’s toll of 20 dead and 19 wounded another 9 dead and 16 wounded?

FOR INSTANCE

At the beginning of the 12th chapter of Luke, we are givens the context for today’s reading, where Luke writes: “…when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another,”

This is our first hint that there is more than just this man… but a larger societal problem in play, that they would trample upon one another.

“he (Jesus) began to speak first to his disciples, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.  Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”

I bring this up because as those who are living now in an age of revelation, for “uncovering” is the deeper meaning of that word.

Hear the Gospel again:  “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

Setting aside for the moment that this very night he died, in spite of all that he has stowed away, what do you notice in his words?  What captures YOUR attention?

{PAUSE}

I counted ten “I” and “my” statements within 3 three sentences.  We might call it narcissism, after the Greek god who fell in love with his own reflection, but let’s call it for what it is:  selfishness.  Everything is all about himself.   There is no one else in his conversation.  Not family.  Not Friend.  Not God.

It would seem that we are living in an age that has actively encouraged that philosophy of selfishness.  It has come in the voice of the late writer Ayn Rand.  It has been articulated by the late economist Milton Friedman who fostered what Business Insider writes has:

“persuaded a generation that selfishness was the natural state of humanity and that selfishness ultimately would lead to the best possible society, when all the empirical data shows exactly the opposite: that people are capable of prosociality and that pro-social societies do better.”

 Friedman’s neoclassical theory held that:

“every human action is motivated by selfishness.  As such, all humans can be motivated into doing anything as long as there is an economic incentive for it.  In fact, no one does or should look out for the good of the collective — corporations should worry only for their shareholders and not for their workers or their customers, for example.  Individuals should think only about their own bottom line.  It’s all that matters to them really, anyway — the me, here, and now.”

Sounds a whole lot like the rich man, doesn’t it?  “Individuals should think only about their own bottom line… the me, here, and now.”

I’ve been wrestling with this… thinking about yesterday and today, El Paso and Dayton, how such selfishness is presenting itself in our society.  And, I’ve been remembering what it was like to be an ER chaplain at times when the accidents and gun violence in Kentucky made it impossible to not step in blood if I was to comfort the patients and calm the staff.  I said this earlier this morning to Sheila and with her permission I must share her response:

“I think we are that’s where we are, isn’t it?  Waking in blood with no clear place to step. Not in our schools.  Not in our churches, mosques or synagogues.  Not in the shopping center or the movie theater.  Not at family outings, birthday parties or community events.  And yet we look for ways to walk around the blood. Mental health, more guns, immigrant dehumanization, video games, song lyrics, just need Jesus.  Jesus walked in the blood.  Felt our pain, stood in our place and demands that when we follow him, we do the same for others.  Love our neighbor, walk in the blood and remove the thing that causes the pain.”

We are standing amid it.

Now.

{PAUSE}

SO WHAT?

How can we respond, as the followers of Jesus, to remove the thing that causes the pain?

I think we saw it in seeing people standing patiently in two or more hour long lines, out in the HOT weather, in order to donate blood.  It was watching a guy walk up and down the line feeding people pizza.

{Here I made an impromptu conclusion about the white supremacy feasting on resentments, the powerlessness and the grief we may feel right now and how I had looked about the house this morning for 29 tea candles and found exactly the number of those slain, as I invited the congregation to come forward and light one, and if so moved, to speak to their hearts and hopes}.

{Closed with prayer}

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“How Baby Boomers Became the Most Selfish Generation,” by Linette Lopez.  Business Insider,, 30 Nov 2016.  Accessed 30 July 2019, at https://www.businessinsider.com/how-baby-boomers-became-the-most-selfish-generation-2016-11?fbclid=IwAR1k7vwQIgqD2yWOUbbnpP8yfT9hMOvLCZYBGg9PEUk5b2pUyPugZHXv2w0