“Left Behind”

blogphoto*Preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 14 July 2019.  I admit, I did feel this familiar text more painfully than usual, given it’s on a day when there is a nationwide sweep being conducted.  (I fear that particular discussion has been caught up in what is “legal” instead of what is “humane.”) When it comes to the story of the “Good Samaritan,” whether we look at what is a pretty divisive issue in our nation as to those seeking asylum… or our little part of the neighborhood… we cannot miss that the Word of God, over and over, expresses specific concern for the stranger and alien, whoever they happen to be or to represent (see Deuteronomy 10:18-19).  As a people of faith, we would do well to consider our Biblical roots… whether standing behind someone who is short on money at the grocery check-out line or in looking at larger issues of in our society.  In the end, each person is, without exception, a child of God.

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The Gospel of Luke 10:25-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.   Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.   So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them.  Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.   The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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INTRODUCTION

In the long journey of my years in ministry, my training as a clinician, and processing adventures in life, I have concluded there are two forms of trauma which can afflict one’s body, mind and/or spirit – and they are abandonment and abuse.  In this story of grace, read from the Gospel this morning, the victim is unnamed and silent, but we know by inference he is a male Jew.  That’s it.  Abused, he had been set upon, beaten, robbed, and cast to the side of the road.

There are many ways to unpack this well-known story.  We can talk about how folks get so caught up in their “religious” work, like his fellow Jews – a priest and a senior layperson at the temple, who miss that the truest worship of God are those actions that lift up the downtrodden.  We can talk about the narrative being about a “Good Samaritan” as if he was somehow an aberration in what is a thinly disguised form of racism – something our society wrestles with as well.  But let’s start with what’s most obvious – a man abused and in severely dire straits is abandoned by those who walk on by.  Left behind, be it malice or not, this stands as a searing discount of the value of a life.  It happens all the time, all around us, sometimes to the point where it isn’t seen.

Like the plumb line that the Prophet Amos spoke of centuries before, one set “in the midst of my people Israel” [Amos 7:8], Jesus is dropping a plumb line amid this parable as he responded to the lawyer.  He does so while standing amid his own followers, this having taken place shortly after they had experienced a rather inhospitable reception in a Samaritan village.  In the intentional way of Luke, this is no accidental placement.  We might recall the brothers Zebedee, James and John, also known by Jesus as “the sons of thunder,” had actually asked Jesus to set fire to that village, out of their aggrieved sense of offense.

 WHY I BRING THIS UP

I would suspect they did not realize Jesus is using the lawyer to teach his own disciples, even as he used them on occasion to teach the crowds.  Asked to the effect, “How do you interpret the law to others?,” the real question in this parable is:  how do we interpret the Lord’s grace for others?

FOR INSTANCE

Luke is, after all, a doctor, and we know how doctors just love lawyers!  As the one Gospel author who often portrays lawyers in a bad light (try nine times!), there is a richness of irony in the telling.  Someone well-versed in debate, educated to parse words and nail down details, is used to air out prejudice and see the larger view of God.

Reciting the words of the Shema, a twice-a-day prayer, the lawyer adds the command from Leviticus 19:18, as to loving “one’s neighbor as oneself.”  Unsaid, is the rest of the direction of the Lord in this passage from Leviticus as to why one should “love your neighbor as yourself,” it is because “I am the LORD… When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

It really is a commendable response, as Jesus himself notes.  Nowhere before are these two commandments joined as one in scripture, and the lawyer is absolutely correct.  But, have you ever noticed how when someone is really pleased with themselves, they will say that one word too many that just undoes everything?  I know I’ve been there, just ask Julie!  So the lawyer asked, “But who IS MY NEIGHBOR?”  Reading between the lines, it’s like saying: “I am all about loving my neighbor as myself, Jesus, but not the wrong neighbor.  Rabbi, can you help me out by specifying exactly who I have to help and who I can just ignore?  What is the limit of my responsibility?”

What is ours indeed?

There is the implication of his hope the answer will be “People that look like and worship like me… fellow citizens of religious and tribal identity… people of purity, you know… the ones who I think belong here.” But can compassion be limited only to those for whom there is an established legal relationship?  Just fellow citizens of the kingdom?  Just fellow citizens of the nation?  It is an interesting question whether we are talking about the people in Hampton and Newport News, or the imprisoned children on the border.  You see, it is the Living Word of God because it is always relevant to what is happening around us, not just a couple millennium ago as if a just a history lesson.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus always knew what folk were really thinking?  Here he responds with a story and then asks the lawyer:  “Which of these three, do you think WAS A NEIGHBOR?”  He is asking of the man, “Who did you see that demonstrated what it LOOKS LIKE to be a neighbor?”  In the Kingdom of God perspective, neighbor is not a matter of the identity of the other, but instead, of owning identification with the values of the love we experience in Christ.  It’s a love that knows no boundaries, and which sets no limits on the grace flowing through some surprising and unanticipated places into the lives of those we’d not expect.

In an age when people are as quickly offended as James and John, and just as ready to call down fire on those they don’t like, an age that leaves me thinking if Jesus encountered Jewish Nationalism back then, now Jesus would run into the hardness of Christian Nationalism – a subservience of the faith to the technicalities of the law, instead of embracing what is the highest responsibility.  To be blunt, it’s wanting to know the restrictive limits of one’s duty to be compassionate, while Jesus points to living in the spirit of God’s kingdom as honoring God with an expansive understanding of “neighbor.”

It is hearing Jesus ask us to hold this vision:  “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me?”

It’s really that simple.

The Samaritan gets it.  Not for any other reason but to address human need, he responds to the needs of the man in the ditch, actions that cost him time and money.  Willingly.  There’s no mistaking the first two who came by expanded the distance between themselves and the hapless fellow in the ditch, rather than coming near… to be a neighbor.  Yet to his listeners, Jesus portrayed what is a “good” Samaritan”- an oxymoron to a first century Jew – making the marginalized as the compassionate, the abused as the caregiver, the abandoned as the present, and the stranger as the generous.

We have no idea why the man had been beaten or mugged.  Things happen and often there is no connection to any kind of justice we can see.  People have strokes, get cancer, have epilepsy, struggle with depression, are abused and abandoned – all, like Job on down, through no fault of their own.  Life just happens.  Good or bad.  It just IS.  We don’t always know the why.

If “Neighbor” is rooted in the same word that means “to be near,” we would rightly hear Jesus’ question as: “Who is the one who comes near when there is suffering?  THAT is the neighbor!”  And this, my friends, is really God’s value system, the very thing we see in Jesus.  Now think about a recent study by the Barna Institute which found that “although many of the churchless hold positive views of churches, a substantial number also have no idea what Christians have accomplished in the nation, either for the better or for the worse.  When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community…”  And then there is this…. If half of the unchurched could not name any contribution of Christians to the common good, among those who could it was seeing the poor being served, disadvantaged welcomed, the extension of love to those in one of the many kinds of ditches of life.

If the parable has elements of being a cautionary tale about justifying ourselves and watering down the concept of “Who is my neighbor,” it also unveils the need among the Jewish hearers to be “healed” of their prejudice.  In their case, a prejudice against Samaritans, by the setting aside the misuse of scriptural “laws” that create barriers to compassion.

SO WHAT

So what do we make of all of this?

In this upside-down kingdom, Jesus calls each one to  strip away our self-delusions, and reveals how the ideology of tribalism which is an age-old affliction of humanity, is to be countered by the vision of faith.  There is no us and them, not in the realm of Jesus Christ; his own death is meant as the destruction of divisiveness, such that grace would grow where separation once ruled.  This is something we must ponder in personal and public life, the choices we make on a daily basis to see and to care for individuals, but also how we would influence our society.

All of this brings me back to something I noticed the evening we had our Welcome Table picnic.  It seemed a small thing, if a bit disconcerting. Connie had everyone draw a number and sit at that table’s number.  She mixed us all up!  Church members, husbands and wives, kids, sailors, neighbors.  All of us sitting in new patterns.  She busted up our little tribes!  It seems to me this is what Jesus is talking about, shattering such patterns in all of life, inviting us to sit with strangers as much as friends, inviting us to the discovery of each other’s stories, pulling down walls, inviting us to see one another.

We need to be – we must be – shaken up regularly, that love would abound.

Amen.

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Source: “Five Trends Among the Unchurched Research,”  Barna Institute, 09 October 2014.  Accessed on 13 July 2019 at: https://www.barna.com/research/five-trends-among-the-unchurched/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The concern for the stranger and alien is a repeated theme throughout the Bible.  When speaking through Moses, God makes very clear that God “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [Deuteronomy 10:18-19].

 

The mercy of the Kingdom of God often comes only to those who seemingly have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes. The paradox is that the very one who is beaten and abandoned is the one who most experiences the kingdom of God.  As it has been said: “The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy” [Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom, p. 29].  In the kingdom, mercy is always a surprise.

Bernard Brandon Scott. “Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom,” p. 29.

“Prescription for Life!”

blogphoto*Preached on 07 July 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Before I go into the sermon, for point of clarification the story of Naaman takes place long after the David’s “United Kingdom” has come apart.  The text moves back and forth in saying “Sameria” and “ISrae’,” (elsewhere referred to also as the Northern Kingdom), but they are one and the same.  For simplicity’s sake I will just use “Israel” in the sermon.  “Judah” encompasses Jerusalem and this Southern Kingdom has retained its worship of God from the King on down, but it’s not so with Israel.  Shortly before this passage, Israel had been ruled by Ahab and Jezebel, whom we may recall, all but eradicated the prophets of God from Israel, with Elijah having been a thorn in their side.  Elijah is now gone, but Elisha and the other three primary disciples of Elijah remain and King Ahaziah is no God-worshipper either.  Also, for point of clarification, in the text both the “Syrians” and “Arameans” are names, but they are one and the same.

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Book of II Kings 5:1-14 (New Revised Standard Version)

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.  Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.  She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  He would cure him of his leprosy.”  So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.  And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”  He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”  When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?  Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”  But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes?  Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”  So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.  Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”  But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?  Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.  But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

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INTRODUCTION

There were times I would find myself totally stymied in a community of warriors, where all of them understood strategy.  Though each had sought me out for counseling, I would sometimes run into resistance when getting close to the issues at the heart of the matter.  No matter the approach, they were like wrestlers, tough to pin down and tough to open up, and so healing would be deferred.

In this narrative, we see another warrior, Naaman – a “great man,” says the Book of Kings, because he was fair in his dealings, there was an honor about him.  A great warrior of valor and yet suffering with a fearful disease like leprosy.  A man whose very name meant gracious or pleasant and yet on a raid into the Northern Kingdom Israel he had taken as a slave a young woman to serve his wife.  A feared enemy of Israel and yet he comes in unexpected peace and hope.  So like most of us, I expect, there are paradoxes about Naaman’s life.  Though he is spoken of with an element of admiration in the scripture, yet for all of that he has achieved and all of his prestige – the possibility of healing eludes him… until now.   Like the warriors among whom I served, Naaman was used to having a plan and being adaptable once it was in motion, that he could achieve his objectives, most always on his terms.  When put that way, it kind of sounds a bit like most of us, doesn’t it?

All of this puts me in mind of something I think I once mentioned to ya’ll, how I had Julie buy me, as only she could, the most garish Disney wand she could find, which is Tinkerbell, of course!  Then, when I ran into one of those frustrating occasions, I’d mention we weren’t really getting anywhere.  The warrior would shift uncomfortably in his seat in tacit admission, saying nothing.  I’d pull out trusty “Tinkerbell” and say something like, “My wife bought me this magic wand, and since we’re not making any progress I’d like to see if this works,” as I grinned and tapped them with it.  Don’t you imagine that the warrior Naaman must have looked as much or more incredulous as my warriors had with my Tinkerbell wand, when Elisha sent out word for Naaman to dip his whole body into the supremely muddy River Jordan River?

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Ever notice how healing of the spirit takes place when we let go of the tendency to be in control and we instead move into a spirit of humility?

FOR INSTANCE

Sometimes in life, a sequence of events happens that one just cannot make up.  We’ve experienced it or at least witnessed it.  It’s no different here, as on a previous, harassing raid into Israel, Naaman like the rest of his men, brings home what can be carried – in this case, a young woman, one who possesses a keen faith in God, unlike either the king of Israel or the one to which she is now captive.  Now a personal servant to his wife, a better fate than many, the story pivots on her, as “She said to her mistress, ‘I wish that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  Then he would heal him of his leprosy’” [II Kings 5:3].  Many times we find ourselves in circumstances we would not choose, but in which we can serve God’s purposes.  Even if ruled by those who have no love for God, she knows there is a prophet who can help.

That word passes from Naaman’s wife to one of his aides who brings him word that “The maiden who is from the land of Israel said this” [II Kings 5:4].  The captive is taken seriously.  The wife is taken seriously.  The aide is taken seriously, and now Naaman comes to his king, Ben-hadad [see I Kings 6], because no matter how appealing – Naaman is one under authority and cannot go off on his own.  Being a king, Ben-hadad does want happens in any chain-of-command, a letter is prepared to be carried by Naaman to Ben-hadad’s rank peer, the King of Israel.

But, Naaman has history with Israel.  He has led raids into it… used by God, perhaps to punish an unfaithful land, or perhaps just to set this story in motion, we are not told by the author of the Book of Kings.  One might well imagine, the new king of Israel already knows just who he is, Naaman’s army having ensured the death of his father, King Ahab [see I Kings 22:29-36], amid a battle where Judah and Israel had formed a temporary alliance to attempt the recapture of a Levitical city on the east bank of the Jordan.  Now there is a new king, Ahaziah, on the throne, one who is, sadly, just as evil and conniving as his father, as Naaman arrives.  Accompanied by chariots of war and solders, yet he brings gold, silver, and vestments that in in 2019 dollars would be more than $6.5 million dollars, and a “letter to the king of Israel, saying, ‘Now when this letter has come to you, behold, I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may heal him of his leprosy’” [I Kings 5:6].  Ahaziah is alarmed, in spite of assurances, such lavish gifts naturally obligating him to assist an enemy, King Ben-hadad, by helping Naaman.

Yet the letter says nothing of how this had all started with a conversation between a captured young woman and Naaman’s wife, and most of all nothing is said about the prophet who lives in Israel.  Perhaps there is an assumption as to the court in Israel that they would know who to employ, but Ahaziah doesn’t: as he says “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends to me to heal a man of his leprosy?”  Yet, clearly, once again someone in the shadows knows God, passing word so that Elisha learns of the matter.

Imagine the somewhat chaotic scene as horses and chariots churn the dust toward Elisha’s humble abode, as Naaman arrives… large and in charge.  Or so he still thinks until Elisha doesn’t come out to greet him, but sends out his servant with the needed prescription.  Expecting Elisha to “come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of Yahweh his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leper,” instead he is informed by Elisha’s servant, to immerse himself in those extraordinary muddy waters of the River Jordan, and seven times at that!  Naaman came for a magical show only to be given this rather weird prescription, one that doesn’t even mention the name of God, and he becomes embarrassed in front of his men and utterly enraged.  Again, it’s through unnamed servants that counsel is offered, as they point out to Naaman that he would have embraced doing “some great thing,” so why can’t he do this small act to “Wash, and be clean?”

I find myself reminded of what my clinical supervisor dryly observed more than a decade ago, that half of prescriptions are not taken – because people don’t have buy in.  In this case, Naaman’s hand is forced, because ultimately what makes him “great” is that he listened… again and again, to those who weren’t in positions of power, but whose insights and faith guided him.  “See now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel” [II Kings 5:15b], says Naaman in an extraordinary affirmation of faith, as he attempts to give a gift to Elisha, who will have none of it.  Instead, Naaman finds himself asking for a second gift, two mule loads worth of dirt, upon which he can stand in worship back home.

What fascinates me about this whole narrative are the voices of the unnamed, of the servants, the invisible people, and even those with every reason to be enemies – who are a part of Naaman’s journey to wholeness.  It raises the question as to who has been a part of our own journey, those in the shadows, those whose names we might not recall, those we’ve bumped into and not seen, all of whom have been a part of our own story of finding God, of experiencing healing, of knowing peace.

Naaman got there by listening.  Even when he wasn’t happy about doing so, and even when by right in his culture, he could have been pretty awful.  I suspect this is why he is referred to as “great,” because he listened to the marginalized.   It was, after all, their voices that steered him all along, the kings and such were but bit players, in the way of the kingdom.

SO WHAT?

If we do acknowledge that is it such voices of the invisible people that God uses to teach us, to lead us, and even to heal us of our own afflicted spirits, then we need to wrestle with how to hear all the voices of the invisible, especially children.  Not just ours, whose names we know, or those across the way whose school supplies we work to provide, but those who are incarcerated as if they are offenders, in what are called detention facilities, but whose conditions remind me more of what I have seen in some very unpleasant countries.  The words of Hebrews 13:1-3 come to mind: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” 

If we were to be listeners, like Naaman was to his servants, listening to the voices of those on the margins, what might they have to teach us, then, about the God whose face we seek?  What would they have to teach us about being voices of counsel?  What would they say to how we may not just be healed, but become agents of God’s healing within our society, especially among those in distress?

Amen.

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Sources: “Patient Medication Adherence: Measures in Daily Practice,” Oman Medical Journal, 2011: May (26:3), pp. 155-159.  Accessed on 06 July 2019, at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3191684/

“The ‘Legion’ We Experience in Life”

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

WHY DO I BRING THIS UP?

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

       to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

       to let the oppressed go free,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

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

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

Amen.

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“Lifted Up” (Trinity Sunday)

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

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

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION’

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

Amen.

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

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

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

 

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

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

Blessings,
Vinson
Hampton, Virginia
11 June 2019

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT?

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

Thank you.

PPT for WordPress

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

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

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

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

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INTRODUCTION

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

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

WHY I BRING THIS UP

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

FOR INSTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 SO WHAT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When this happens,

when we allow freedom to ring,

when we let it ring from every village

and every hamlet,

from every state and every city,

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

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

May the church say, Amen!

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

 

“Down by the Riverside”

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 26 May 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Not everything made it into the sermon, like the strong belief that Luke, the author of Acts, was the “man from Macedonia” seen in Paul’s dream – suggested by the change in pronouns in this passage to “we” from they in this text.  Nor did I go into any depth as to the joyful relationship Paul would have with the young church at Philippi.  So, as it is, here it is… -Vinson

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Book of Acts 16:9-15

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.  When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.  We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[c] of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.  On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.  A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.  The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.  When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

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INTRODUCTION

Who hasn’t gone on a trip?  Maybe a vacation to distant ports?  Maybe a visit to Jamestown?  Maybe just a route for a series of stops using the least amount of gas and time to get errands done?

But do trips go 100% the way we plan?

That hasn’t been my experience in life.  Plans rarely survive the first hours… whether it is the traffic, or a sudden phone call, or the line that’s too long, or the friend we run into?  There are just oh so many variables.

Who has not heard some variant of the saying that “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!”?  Not to hurt our feelings or frustrate us, but because we plan on the basis of what we know.  God simply knows all.  No wonder the Psalmist wisely concluded, in Psalm 16:9, that “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.”

And that’s the crux of the lesson from the Book of Acts this morning.  Paul had his plan, but as Luke writes the narrative “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them…”  Having instead gone to Troas, it is said that “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I’m actually VERY pro-planning — as my wife will attest, but I also have to recognize that as well-reasoned or as well-intentioned as any plan may be, we often encounter the proverbial wrench in the works!  And, when this happens, be it in minor details or larger events, we humans often struggle mightily with the uncertainty or uncontrollable nature of life.  When major parts of the plan go awry, we mere mortals push back, rant and rail, and can truly wrestle at times with the concept that God is in the business of changing our plans to His plan – though many times His plan will ultimately result in something much better than we ever dared hope for.

 FOR INSTANCE

As we have made note of in a previous sermon on Acts, the narrator of the book, Luke, is never accidental in what he includes or excludes of the unfolding story of the Gospel as it spreads following the resurrection of our Lord.  Philippi is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.  It is a city of proud heritage, respected by the Romans.  Founded centuries before by Alexander the Great and named after his father, Philip, it has the major status of a being a Roman colony, and emulates this idea in its imperial presence.  Here, the Empire is powerful and popular, and the city IS the heart of the Empire in this corner of the world, a place that lived like an extension of Rome itself, intended to be an example of what Rome offered to the world.

Arriving in Philippi, Paul, Timothy and Silas go looking for the local synagogue, but the Jewish presence is so small, it apparently did not even have a Minyan – the minimum of 10 men – needed to say the prayers.  So, needless to say:  there exists no synagogue.  Instead, any Jews or God Fearers who happen to be in the town or passing through, apparently knew to meet down by the river on the Sabbath to pray.  They head down to the riverside, hoping to preach the gospel to what men are available.

But the plan keeps changing… there are no men either.

Instead, they find only women, with whom, we are told, they sat down and spoke.  That might not seem so odd to us, especially as we can look around here or at other congregations and women outnumber men.  They are also, typically, the ones getting most of the work done.  But for the hearers of the Book of Acts, with two strange men in town meeting with women, it would have been striking, even offensive.  Unrelated men and women simply didn’t mix, especially in a relaxed place down by a river.

Amid what now likely appears to Paul, Timothy and Silas be to a slowly revealing plan of God, we are told that “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to them; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.”  Referred to as a “God Fearers” – Lydia was not Jewish, but, along with some number of others, were so intrigued with the God the Jews worshipped that they lived their lives as if they were Jews.  Typically, most such God Fearers would have followed all the Jewish laws except for circumcision.  So right from the beginning of the story, Lydia is described in an unconventional way.  Like many around us today in our society, she knew of God, sought to live as much possible by what she knew to be right, and yet did not have that relationship with either Christ or the community of believers.  The funny thing is how this plan God has in mind, to plant the church in Philippi, isn’t centered on a local person.  Instead, Lydia is actually from some distance away – from a town well known for making the valued purple cloth in which she dealt.

Folks still like purple, but it was no small thing at the time as the most highly valued of colors in that age.  Producing the purple cloth took crushing thousands of mollusks – tiny shellfish – just to make enough dye to make a yard or two of purple cloth.  So purple cloth wasn’t just very expensive, it was worth its weight in silver.  And wearing purple?  It was a statement of status and wealth, even more that someone today carrying a Gucci handbag or wearing a Rolex watch.  Purple was THE power color.

And so she’s not only from elsewhere, but she is independent apparently – the head of her own household, with no man mentioned, and a person of means.  This woman is the person who opened her heart to the Lord, listening “eagerly to what was said by Paul.”  As a result, she and her whole household were baptized, and she invited Paul and Silas to come and stay with her – thus Lydia became known as the founder of the church at Philippi.

Looking back to a time when we have been led to believe that conventions demanded that women stay out of the public realm, this was simply NOT the case in the early church.  The Apostle Paul — who down through the centuries has been widely-quoted for his words to the Corinthian church as to women not speaking in church — in actual practice — PROMOTED the proclamation of the Gospel by  entering into all sorts of ministries that were being successfully led by women.  Lydia was just one of several women, named and unnamed, who established the first congregations in their homes.  Like Joanna and a number of female followers of Jesus during his ministry, these were women of means who saw to it that the church had what it needed to grow and flourish.

Unmistakably for Luke, this is the way upon which God planned the church to walk – to follow God’s call to reach across social, economic, cultural, and ethnic boundaries, and to seek opportunities to do God’s work in even the most unexpected places.  This puts before us the question that if the Spirit’s movement in Acts reaches across the lines, ought not our own mission paths reflect the same or even deeper enthusiasm?

SO WHAT?

At the outset, the movement that would be called Christianity FLOUTED normal conventions and DEFIED attempts to CONTROL the Spirit of Christ.  It was broadly and proudly inclusive and affirming of the worth of God’s children.  So it is that Paul and the others find themselves going where they didn’t expect and speaking to one not on their list.  Yet, here was the person and place that God would form not just any church – but the very one that attended directly to Paul and nursed his ministry in the many years to come.

What was that old thing about wearing purple?

Are we —  are YOU? — male or female, either young at heart or old enough to throw caution to the wind, to wear purple — with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit you?

Do you think you are ready, to make up for all those years of following the so-called rules, the limited and closely defined “expectations, all those admonitions to color ONLY INSIDE the lines?  Do you want to go out in your slippers in the rain, or pick the flowers in other people’s gardens, and learn to spit?

NO??!!??

REALLY??!!?

Well…… maybe you’re right; maybe you’re not young at heart enough yet or even old enough just yet. But maybe you ought to practice a little now? So people who know you are not too shocked and surprised when suddenly you are old, and start to wear purple.  Truthfully, what have we got to lose?

I want today to challenge you to truly LISTEN to the ways the Spirit of God is moving   IN  YOU.   It seems to me that it might just be high time to  take a chance together — like Paul and Silas — and mosey on down by the riverside!

Amen and Amen again!

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“Not of One’s Choosing, But God’s”

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 19 May 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  There are a number of directions this text affords conversation, which is why a pastor can indeed preach on the same text every three years!  – Vinson

Book of Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.  So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,  saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision.  There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.  As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’  But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’  But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.  At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.  The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.  These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.  He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’  And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.  And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

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INTRODUCTION

Who didn’t love the TV show “I Love Lucy”?  As a kid, I watched that glorious, hilarious redhead get into more fixes and then —- get herself in deeper most of the time before she got out again!   And probably six times out of ten, we all heard that famous line:

“LUUUUUUCY!   You’ve got some ‘Splainin’ to Do!!!”

From time to time just about all of us have some explaining to do, in some fashion, to someone.  I know I do.  Reasonably often.  Just ask Julie!

Sometimes though, it’s serious.  In today’s lesson from Acts, we hear how Simon Peter finds himself explaining himself twice.  First to Cornelius and then to the church leadership that would be seated in Jerusalem until its destruction in 70 AD.  It’s no ordinary thing Peter unpacks, and which Luke retells for us.

We’ve read as Peter has been drawn into a less and less Jewish area.  We talked last week about him coming to Joppa, a mixed area, as much Gentile as Jew, where he healed Tabitha and then stays at the home of Simon the tanner.  That particular occupation, though needed, wasn’t exactly looked upon in favor by most – as it involved a certain amount of stench, in dealing with dead animals and the lye to process the skins.  We forget, President Grant was a tanner by trade, returning to the Army having utterly hated that life.  It wasn’t an easy one.

Fittingly enough, it’s here, in this setting, that Peter has a vision, a dream.  He comes to with the insight that ALL things God has made are good.  What we would refer to in our age as “privilege” will be cast away – right along with the tendency to pretend that there is an ownership of God – making one’s feelings toward “those people” more justified.  At just about the time Peter had his dream, so does Cornelius.  This centurion lives about nine miles away in Caesarea, a Roman seaport that is still seen as an engineering marvel.  His would have been no small responsibility.  So… — not unreasonably – Cornelius did according to his dream, sending emissaries to Peter.  There’s a knock on the door, and the story begins – one that brings Peter to a whole new way of thinking.  Completely.  180 degrees out.  When they get together, Peter tells him about Jesus, and before the day is over Cornelius and all his friends are baptized.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

God does that.  Putting us in places, with people, and with decisions we likely might not choose otherwise.  If anything, it is God reminding us that it is God’s idea and not ours – so we can be certain of his will.

FOR INSTANCE

It isn’t a snap.  Peter apparently went to great lengths to explain himself to Cornelius.  He doesn’t want to be there.  That’s the first thing Peter has to say as he hangs back, the image one of him standing in the doorway.  He lays it out.  ”You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.”  It isn’t just his pet religious conviction, it the Jewish law at that time in the land where Peter lives and moves and has his being.  It would have been a no-no, for Peter to sit down and dine at the same table.  The law and all his upbringing said so.  And yet, here God had sent him.  Cornelius would have probably attended the synagogue there in Caesarea, where he worshipped God, but things were different in Jerusalem and in the Galilee that was Peter’s home.  Let’s call it what we once called it here in our land:  segregation.  That was Peter’s frame of reference.

In his next breath, Simon says with emphasis, “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”  There is an undercurrent of reluctance, as if saying,  “GOD is making me do this, but IF it were up to ME…”   So, finally… Peter goes on to basically say, “I came without objection.  Now, what’s go-ing on?”

The body language must have been noticeable, don’t you think?  Standing at the door.  Able to make a quick exit.

Cornelius tells Peter his story of how he has faithfully served God.  He is one of constant prayer, generous in his giving alms to the poor in God’s name, and having a personal relationship with God.  But clearly, he knows God has something more in mind.  Cornelius and Peter basically compare notes.  They find they truly have something in common, or rather someone, as Peter ends up not only baptizing all of them, but staying with them for several days.

I have to imagine Peter, who was not a solo act, had to wonder what he was going to say when he got back to Jerusalem.  There will be unhappiness.  Maybe even elements of conflict, and we all know how fun that is.  The council of apostles will have some hard questions, even of Peter.  There is an accountability.  When one goes and starts messing with some of the most sacred beliefs and ideas, it will be dicey.  Sure enough, before he has a chance to tell them, word had already been received and they jump on Peter.

Old ways die hard.

Nearly always.

Peter knows this.  He’s been there, after all.  Many times, if one reads the Gospels.  We know that if you’re trying to give old, worn-out beliefs a decent burial, it’s best to take your time and go slow.  Ironic, given the times the Gospels demonstrate his impatience.  This is the one who resisted so strongly that Jesus had to rebuke him, when Jesus started talking about suffering and persecution and death.  We’re talking about Peter, the one who always had a way of saying the wrong thing.  But, Easter has changed him.  Grace has changed him.  It has opened him to change, the kind he had struggled with for the entire three years Jesus and the disciples crisscrossed the land.

At times, maybe always in some cases, we want to sanitize things.  But church.  Real church.  Well, it can be messy sometimes, especially when God is doing a new thing.

“Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?,” Peter is asked.  I think it’s reasonable to hear real anger in these words.  They don’t simply refer to them as Gentiles by using the least flattering of descriptions.  It would have been easy, surely understandable, if this had become a contest of wills.  Instead, Peter tells them his story, about his vision, his encounter with Cornelius and his household.  Step-by-step.  What.  Why.  How.  If they believe Peter, it isn’t because – as Peter is clear on the day of Pentecost – he isn’t a person of eloquence.  The Spirit of God has dragged Peter – and the larger church – into this encounter to make THIS point:  There will be NO Distinction between people with regard to salvation and table fellowship.  “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life,” they say.

SO WHAT?

Wherever you find God, expect to find God doing a new thing.  God is always in motion, calling forth those willing to journey with him into new and uncharted waters of the faith – among people and tasks one might not otherwise choose.

Luke makes it clear that God chose Cornelius not because he is a pious person who prays a lot and is generous with his gifts to the poor, but rather, — and this is the larger point here — that WHAT HE DOES reflects his openness to what God Can Do with — and in – him!

Perhaps it is fitting that this is the word in the lectionary for today, as we continue to look to the path ahead for our congregation.  Who will lead?  What vision would we cast?  What path are we called to follow?  How might God be talking to you and to me on a personal, individual level?  How open are we all to the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives?  Do we still have “some ‘splainin’ to do”… both publicly and internally as we seek to listen to and serve our Lord with our whole hearts?  Let us listen, my friends.  Let us open our hearts wide.  Let us continue to seek our new thing!!!”

Amen.

Celebration of Life – Charlie Cathrell

*Celebration of Life service held at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA, on 18 May 2019.  “None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself,” and in no one was that more true than in Charlie.  This is my remarks and does not include the family remembrances which were profoundly touching. Please keep Charlie’s family in your prayers.  – Vinson

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Scriptures Read During the Service

Romans 8:35, Isaiah 41:10, Philippians 3:20-21, II Corinthians 1:3-5

John 14:1-3 & Proverbs 4:1-13

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INTRODUCTION

In the Gospel of Luke [chapter 24], on the day of Easter, two disciples walked from Jerusalem toward Emmaus, talking as they went.  Jesus joined them.  Lost in thought and conversation, they didn’t recognize him.  Not even when Jesus asked them “What things?” when they wondered why he didn’t know anything of what transpired the previous days.  The ending wasn’t was they anticipated, and Good Friday had come.  The reports from the women that Sunday morning had seemed… implausible.

Then they added “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

“We had hoped,” is a phrase that’s really resonated in the journey that’s brought us to this afternoon.

“We had hoped” that Charlie would push through the medical crisis.

“We had hoped” for a different diagnosis through one thing and the next, that the stubborn streak of Charlie’s and his enthusiasm for life would translate into healing, surprising the docs and pleasing us.

“We had hoped” that Charlie would recover, that if not more years, we’d at least have more months.

“We had hoped,” but on a Thursday we experienced our Good Friday, and there are few things more painful than dashed hope in our broken world

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Amid this, I would suggest that right now we can learn a lot from how Jesus interacted with the disciples that journey us through healing.  As we move through and beyond “we had hoped” – discovering they won’t be the final words we will speak – to the new kind of hope the disciples experienced… and spoke.

FOR INSTANCE

If we have found ourselves walking this road away from Jerusalem, still hurt and confused, what’s interesting is that Jesus doesn’t just start telling Bible stories so as paper over their hurt or force them to feel better.  You see, my friends, Jesus is OK hearing us speak of our hurt, holding forth a clear example for those of us who would walk this journey with the family.  Jesus comes alongside us on the road.  He asks what’s wrong.  He listens to what is said of all that’s transpired and of the life absent.

He lets them tell their story.  The whole story.  He lets us tell ours.

After all, as those who proclaim Christ, isn’t that what today is about as we tell the story of Charlie?  We may tell the story of grief, but as Psalm 23 assures us, we aren’t alone on that walk… and as Jesus shows us – the shepherd is present.  That’s what gets us to the story of LIFE – one whose legacy will become only clearer as we tell stories about Charlie – for whom Easter has come.

Anyone who knew Charlie knows at least one good story… probably several.  We’ve already heard a few and I hope the story telling keeps going!

Among the stories?  Let’s face it, Charlie was never allergic to hard work.  It started when he was a boy and would often help his Dad at the grand brick cotton spinning mill in town, built little more than a century ago.  A sprawling brick palace, surrounded by a mill village, in that age it wasn’t uncommon for children to be found in the mills.  Smaller hands were very adept in dealing with some of the finer details, to ensure a good product.

His work ethic certainly continued when he moved to the Peninsula to work at Newport News Shipbuilding, and when a strike came along, Charlie didn’t sit around.  He went to work for UPS.  Now this was when the brown UPS trucks were still very much a new thing.  The business had just expanded to all the lower 48 states and marketed itself on timely deliveries.  To start off right, Charlie decided to spend Sunday afternoon before his first day, practicing driving his route, right along with Betty, as usual, his trusted sidekick!

Charlie left nothing to chance, and it showed.  It was no different with the kids.

Just ask Rob was it was like to have a paper route with his Pop driving.  Sometimes even letting him drive, while Charlie would then sprint for the doorsteps, even if… uh… Rob was underage!  It was going to be done:   right AND on time!

But what really defined Charlie was “family.”  He completely owned being a father, not just a husband.  Charlie saw no difference whether the children were of blood – with Cindy, or of the heart – with Rob, Mark and Jamie.  They were ALL his kids, protected with a fierce heart and clear love.  He embraced the boys, then young survivors of great sadness – and over the years he gave them a sure footing in life – on the ballfield, at home, in the shop, in the house.  No soft touch, except maybe for the grandkids!  Charlie could hand out discipline and wherever there are three boys, as was also the case in my own family, someone’s going to merit it!  But the objective was clearly the hope of the father who spoke in Proverbs 4, to not “…let what I say go in one ear and out the other.  Stick with wisdom and she will stick to you, protecting you throughout your days.”  He knew how to offer that very pragmatic word of counsel that is best heard in a true and trusting relationship.

Bottom line: One cannot underestimate the lifelong impact of Charlie’s fathering.

Of course, Charlie, being his gregarious self, just as readily pulled into his heart his children’s spouses and then the grandchildren, whom Charlie so clearly and deeply adored – and anyone else he could add to his merry band.  All knew his encouragement, tenacious love, sense of fun, and ever infectious laugh.  Always laughter!

Charlie and Betty shared a deep love and an even deeper friendship with one another.  It was a partnership from the outset, one that brought them from Edenton to the Peninsula.  I don’t know many women who don’t deeply love a man who loves her children and Betty is eternally grateful for that lifelong gift.  Yet, not only were they teammates through the daily demands of guiding and raising the children, they were devoted partners: in love, in fun, in laughter with one another – and yes, watching Charlie’s beloved Redskins!  As Julie likes to say, the best partners of all are our partners in crime, the ones who cry with us, giggle with us, roll eyes at us, plot shenanigans with us, and never, ever let go of us, no matter the circumstance.

Betty and Charlie were blessed by second chances to create their love story; they neither wasted them, nor took them for granted.

Together, they cherished their beautiful family, the grands, even the family of friendships they created amongst us here, welcoming so many into their home.  To the end, they were devoted, caring, attentive, loving.  It was a difficult walk those last few weeks, in particular, but they did it the way they did everything: side by side, smiling and encouraging one another, letting grace lead the way.  The example they set shows in the next generations’ relationships as well.

SO WHAT?

I’ve been thinking about how on the last Sunday in March, when our congregation had a hymn sing.  The one Charlie sang with a full heart, a favorite of his, was “I Love to Tell the Story.”  It’s clear Charlie’s story is one intertwined with love for family and clear in a faith lived out in action.  It was everything we could hope for.  His story was and IS one to tell, as we walk with the Lord

Amen.

__________________________________

Charles “Charlie” E. Cuthrell

Charles (Charlie) E. Cuthrell, 75, passed away on Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Riverside Regional Medical Center surrounded in love by his family.  He was the son of the late William “Ed” and Carrie Cuthrell (Batton) of Edenton, NC.  He graduated from John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, NC.  After graduation he enlisted in the Army for 4 years.  After leaving the service he moved to the Peninsula to work at Newport News Shipbuilding. He left the shipyard to put on his browns for UPS and retired after 25 years.  After retirement he went to work ABC store in Yorktown for 4 years.  He was an avid wood worker and landscaper, enjoying working in his shed on many projects.  He was all about family, faith and friends, making many wonderful memories for everyone.  His favorite was the annual family vacations to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Charlie was a member of First Christian Church, Todds Lane, Hampton.
Charlie was preceded in death by his parents William and Carrie Cuthrell, brothers Robert Twiddy and Payne Twiddy, and Payne’s wife, Erna. He is survived by his wife of 43 years Betty Cuthrell and his children, Rob Cuthrell (Tina) of Yorktown, Cindy Seymour of Edenton, NC., Mark Goodrich (Melissa) of Newport News, and Jamie Cuthrell (Carmelita) of Lawrenceville, NJ. He is also survived by six grandchildren, Amber, Andrew, Emily, Daniel, Freddy and Lilly; a sister Faye Mullins of Newport, NC and Ruby Daniels of Suffolk and many nieces and nephews.
The family would like to give our heartfelt thanks for the loving care dad received from Riverside Regional Medical Center, Peninsula Cancer Institute, HR Neurosurgical and Spine Specialists and the RRMC Medical ICU team. Thank you!
The family requests in lieu of flowers, gifts of love sent to
First Christian Church
1458 Todds Lane
Hampton, VA 23666

________________________________

I Love to tell the Story

I love to tell the story
of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory,
of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story,
because I know ’tis true;
it satisfies my longings
as nothing else could do.

      Refrain:
I love to tell the story;
’twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story
of Jesus and his love.

I love to tell the story;
more wonderful it seems
than all the golden fancies
of all our golden dreams.
I love to tell the story,
it did so much for me;
and that is just the reason
I tell it now to thee.  [Refrain]

I love to tell the story;
’tis pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it,
more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story,
for some have never heard
the message of salvation
from God’s own holy Word.  [Refrain]

I love to tell the story;
for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting
to hear it like the rest.
And when in scenes of glory
I sing the new, new song,
’twill be the old, old story
that I have loved so long.  [Refrain]

Celebration of Life – Sarah Schuermann

*The “Celebration of Life” service held in remembrance of Sarah Schuermann was held at First Christian Church of Hampton, on Thursday, 16 May 2019.  Sarah was precious to all who were graced by her presence, her love, intellect, music, and much more.  While I have known Bill since 1990, when he was still an active duty Air Force chaplain and I sought endorsement from our denomination to serve as a Navy Chaplain, I did not know Sarah until Alzheimer’s had taken its long toll.  It is surely my loss.  I am thankful for those who shared insights and memories with me, so that I could honor her life.  May we continue to lift up Bill, their family and all who loved Sarah. – Vinson

 Readings for the service were Psalm 100, Psalm 150, and Psalm 23.

_______________________________

INTRODUCTION

It is my hope, Bill, that I get this right!  As a colleague in ministry, thank you for trusting me with this service, so we can truly honor Sarah.  I will also note that if today is about celebrating Sarah’s life, it seems to me that to do so is to acknowledge today is also about a love story.

This is a story of two interwoven lives from youth to being aged, spanning over six decades of marriage and even longer of being in love.  It is about two people, committed to one another and as much to our Lord, paired for life, hand in hand.  It is about a deep and abiding love which embodied the vows of marriage and commitment in parenting.  It is about an abiding, gentle friendship that enjoyed the safeness of shared confidences.  It is about a complimentary ministry of music that ran parallel to and in support of Bill’s ministry, one largely about caring for those who wore the nation’s cloth and their families.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I say this to ask each of us to stop for a few moments and ponder the life Sarah lived – in the team that was marriage, family, and ministry.  In this, consider how you hear the joyous love of our Lord, in the witness of Sarah’s daily life.

FOR INSTANCE

Raised in the church as a musician, meeting Bill in high school, dating through college, Bill and Sarah didn’t wait until she graduated to get married.  I’m not sure how you did it, Bill, beyond promising her dad that you would take care of Sarah.  Getting a father’s permission was a really big deal.  I know my Dad had no such luck with his future father-in-law, who made them wait.

In an age when marriage often ended a woman’s college path, Sarah finished her degree.

She did it while pregnant, and STILL finished the last two semesters.  Her professors must have loved her, because they worked with her to make it happen.  While EVERYONE always speaks of Sarah as such a sweet woman, it took real steel for her to accomplish that:  Steel enclosed in great kindness and joy.

Perhaps the most defining part of Sarah’s life was her 30 years as the wife of an Air Force chaplain.  Not only did she have to navigate her husband’s absence for years in Vietnam, she had to stay strong for their children. Staying close meant phone calls that could not be transparent due to censors and letters that were never fast enough.

More than just sustaining their own relationship and sharing at a distance the life of their young family, hers was the only truly safe ear for Bill.  That’s the way it is for chaplains.  Their wives offer that special gift, and carry that special burden.  It would be what she did to strengthen Bill as he cared for those bearing the weight of battle, far from their own families, suicidal, depressed or grief-stricken over friends lost to the war, receiving “Dear John” letters and being unable to go home, and even giving needed insight to commanding officers.  In the thick of it all, Sarah was Bill’s confidante, his friend.

Being a chaplain’s wife means going wherever the military says her husband is needed, bringing any children in tow.  It might be every three years, or receiving surprise orders in the middle of an assignment.  Rarely in the same location or even state.  If the last tour was here at nearby Langley, other tours meant living in the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam or elsewhere.  Anyone who has done a career, especially one of 30 years, would learn the Air Force has installations in some nice locations.  It also has them in just as many in places in the middle of nowhere, or of being in a country while a dictator was toppled – giving Sarah the opportunity to view the infamous Imelda Marcos shoe collection!  Regardless of where, the nature of such a life is that Sarah often sacrificed being close to her larger family.  It was in the selfless way she supported the man she loved, adored, and in whose gift of ministry she so strongly believed, that Bill could serve others and God.

Through the many times that the family would be uprooted, as the mom, Sarah would navigate them through the transitions into new schools, neighborhoods, friendships, routines.  Each time she would reinvent what was “home.”   Then, when their now adult children were back in the states, while they served in the Philippines, Sarah still found a way to connect to her children and grandchildren.  When apart, it was reading books onto cassette tapes for them to read along with her.  When together, there was driving go-carts, bowling, roller skating, or whatever other fun filled adventures she conceived.  Always, it was making sure they knew family was important and loved, as she shared her enthusiasm for the life God gives.

Sarah reveled in bringing her lifelong love of music and talent as a both a pianist and an organist to a variety of settings.  In chapels, it was more than just Sarah playing.  If there wasn’t a choir, she invented one:   their kids quickly drafted as the first members, naturally.  Having been the drum major of her high school marching band, no small thing – especially for a young woman almost 70 years ago, it was a given that all the kids would learn instruments and sing, and she would lead them on!   This congregation itself experienced Sarah’s gifts and the love that radiated through her as she played and sang after Bill’s retirement — always with joy upon her face!  No wonder she had from childhood, a lifelong love for the words to “Jesus Loves Me!,” its words echoed through her life:  “Walking with me on my way, Wanting as a friend to give – Light and love to all who live.”  Knowing this, now imagine what she was like for those far from their own families, for whom chapel was their “home away from home” family?  While in the Philippines, far from their own grown children, Sarah became the welcoming “mom” to young airmen far from their own families.  Bill and Sarah’s home, became a place for home-cooked meals, music and love – especially for the single airmen.  She took care of other people’s children, as she put it, in hopes that someone would take care of hers.  It was simply how Sarah lived out her faith in God.

A chaplain’s wife tends to be widely known both for her own personality but also because she IS the chaplain’s wife.  It meant Sarah was regularly approached by other wives, those far from their moms needing advice about babies, or faith, or those trying to navigate new marriages under the stresses inherent to all military families.  Always, the safe ear.  Whether walking into the chapel to worship or the commissary to shop for groceries, a chaplain’s wife is often looked to as someone compassionate, loving, approachable, and automatically trusted for her presence of faith.  Sarah would know how to help!  Absent of title, make no mistake, Sarah had her own special form of ministry in partnership with Bill.

SO WHAT?

Having journeyed through such a life, I know taking care of Sarah wasn’t what Bill anticipated.

Life can take us in directions we would not always choose.

If Alzheimer’s, the disease of forgetting, would become her life, remembering FOR her became Bill’s mission– her door festooned with photos of a young woman, of a musician, of a wedding, of children, of a life with the one whose hands would always hold hers.

Some hands are truly meant to be held for a lifetime: Bill’s would be the gentle hands that fed her every day, the hands that stroked her head.  He sang to her and always,  ALWAYS!  kissed her.

Sarah would, in the words of the Psalmists, now be the one served as “goodness and mercy” [Psalm 23:6] followed her all the days of her life until she could enter the Lord’s “gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” [Psalm 100:4]  And, if Sarah was once thrilled to touch the stadium field of her beloved Nebraska Huskers, an enthusiastic lover of football, how much more now the streets of gold in heaven?  There, at last, to live fully those eternal words, to “Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing (and to) make a joyful noise to the Lord!” [Psalm 100:2]

“Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” [Psalm 150:6], for the precious life of Sarah!

Amen.

______________________________

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. 

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

The Bible tells me so. 

 

Jesus loves me still today,  

Walking with me on my way,  

Wanting as a friend to give  

Light and love to all who live. 

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

The Bible tells me so. 

 

Jesus loves me! He who died 

Heaven’s gate to open wide; 

He will wash away my sin,  

Let His little child come in. 

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

The Bible tells me so. 

 

Jesus loves me! He will stay 

Close beside me all the way; 

Thou hast bled and died for me,  

I will henceforth live for Thee. 

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

The Bible tells me so.