Monday, November 28, 2016

Dancing to a Different Tune

Dancing to a Different Tune
Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Revelation 22:1-5
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 11-27-2016)

I will never sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” the same way. Our Palestine-Israel travel group had just passed through one of the 630 checkpoints in the Occupied Palestinian Territory to enter the little town of Bethlehem. Once we had crossed over to the Palestinian side of the Wall, the bus stopped abruptly. Our guide invited us to stand aside the Separation Wall, three times the height of the Berlin Wall. Covered with graffiti, mostly done at night, the Wall was well guarded by Israeli soldiers in a nearby turret armed with uzzis. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight” is a chorus from the carol that ran through my mind standing next to that Bethlehem wall and it has haunted me ever since.
 I was standing in line at a Stuckey’s, a convenience and eating establishment on the main corridor of the Eastern Shore. I was working for the Virginia Council of Churches in their migrant ministry on summer during college. My job began at sunset when the migrants returned to the camp across the street from Stuckey’s, exhausted from a long day harvesting cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash.
The father and son ahead of me in line at Stuckey’s were looking across the street at the wooden shacks in disrepair that serve as seasonal homes for the migrants. The son asked the father, “What are those?” The father answered without missing a beat, “Tobacco barns.” The migrants were essential to the economy of the Eastern Shore but invisible to most people who lived there. They still are and not just on American farms, but along the U.S.-Mexico border, at the borders of Hungary and Germany, on the Sudan and South Sudan, and wherever children, women, and men are forced to flee from home for safety or for economic survival.
Amid all the recent hardline conversation about refugees, internationally and nationally, I have been reminded at how romantically Christians often observe the birth of Jesus, forgetting that in his birth story, Jesus is himself a refugee. As Matthew tells the story, after the holy family was turned away from the Inn, they were chased from Bethlehem to Egypt; they had no place to call home. In a new hymn by Tom Troeger, we hear the haunting truth of a Savior become Refugee: “The winter wind that storms the barn where Mary holds her child portends the coming brutal harm of Herod’s rage run wild” (from “The Winter Wind that Storms the Barn” by Tom Troeger and music by John R. Kleinheksel).
We live in a nation and a world of immigrants and yet we live in a nation and world running scared not only of immigrants and refugees but of everything and everyone from Palestinians to Planned Parenthood to ISIS to the drug trade to declining churches, even to vaccines. When I am scared, I do not think clearly. I react first and think and pray second. When I am with a group of scared people, I find that our language gets extreme and our positions calcify and if not physical, emotional walls are built.

It was to such a community of scared people that Isaiah wrote and generations later, the refugee, John of Patmos, would write. If any two people had good reason to run scared it was Isaiah writing hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus and John of Patmos writing a couple of generations after the death of Jesus.
The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah read like a wild man with multi-colored hair running down the street, holding a huge placard, screaming, “The end of the world is at hand.” No one took him seriously, but he was the only sane one in the crowd. Isaiah announced that a time of destruction and deportation of his people was coming and everyone scoffed. And yet, this same mad town crier inserted an amazing picture of what God would bring to pass after the dark times ahead.
Exiled on the island of Patmos by edict of Rome, John has an amazing vision of the future that God would bring to pass after the dark times at hand. It is hard to read the words of Isaiah and the vision of John and stay scared. It is hard to hear the words of these divine mad men and not want to get up and dance.
In recent years, an aging Roman Catholic South American priest visited the U.S. and called all people of faith to dance to a different tune than the prevailing music of fear and greed and “Black Friday” consumption. Pope Francis is an elegant dancer who daily shows us a different step, such as when he arrived in D.C. and eschewed attending an elegant state dinner, instead, to attend a holy dinner with the homeless poor.

With much talk today of mass deportations and building bigger walls, the Pope dances to a different tune, reminding us all about refugees, “Perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity, but know that they also possess resources meant to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome them.”
“Do not be afraid” is a chorus that echoes throughout Scripture over the frequent din of fear. “Do not be afraid to welcome them,” says the Pope. Easy for the Pontiff to say. He does not have to navigate all the complexities of immigration policy, nor is he charged with protecting the safety of citizens against those who would do us harm. “Sorry, Pope Francis, we are afraid and for good reason.”
You can be sure, though, that a Pope from the Latin South is anything but na├»ve about the real causes for fear out there, just as Isaiah and John were not saying, “You have nothing to fear.” Isaiah, John, Pope Francis know the reality of fear, but despite our fears, they invite us to dance to a different tune, by which our fears are recognized, but they do not cause us blindly to dismiss and discard those who are different from us.  
Listen to these Advent lyrics from Isaiah and see if your feet do not begin to tap and your fear begin to fade:
All nations will stream to the mountain of God, all races, all peoples as one; From the ends of the earth to the farthest of reaches, up to God’s mountain they’ll come. Their weapons of anger will all become plowshares, pruning hooks come from their spears; Out of Zion shall go forth instruction for justice, joy will replace all their tears. O, the love of God flows down from the mountain, where war is no more. All the people, the nations, singing together, sing of God’s peace evermore! Joy flows down; let us go to the mountain of God. Love flows down, down from the Lord. Peace flows down, peace ever more!

What the prophet Isaiah could only dream, the refugee, John of Patmos, surely knew. He knew that no matter how dark the clouds hanging over the world, the church, our lives, no matter how high and oppressive the walls we build, the chorus of the old carol is finally true, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
Why? Because you and I not only follow the one born in Bethlehem, we follow the Lord of the Dance who left the tomb empty that first Easter morning. That is why we light the Advent candle of hope today. That is why we follow the Lord of the Dance into God’s beloved world, a world still consumed with fear and hatred, evil and intimidation, and even so, by God’s grace, we are invited to enter this holy season of Advent and dance to a different tune. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

A letter from Paradise

A Letter from Paradise
Text:  Luke 23:23-33
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 11-20-2016)

Dear Mom and Dad,
I am writing to you from Paradise. You will not locate it on any map for it is a reality not bound by time and space. I hope you will find it soon enough or that it might find you, as it did me.
I have so much to say to you, things that I could never have said before now, but things that must be said. I hurt you more than I can explain and more than I can only hope that you may someday forgive. I can’t imagine the pain you endured watching me nailed to posts of wood and listening to the drunken chants of “Hang ‘em up” coming from a mean and angry crowd.
I wonder if in some ways you did not feel some relief at the end of that miserable day. The pain I put you through, though, started long before as day after day you watched helplessly as I kept company with crooks, with insurrectionists, only soon to become one myself. No child should put parents through such torture and for so long as I did and with little remorse.
Somehow, in Paradise, things are clearer than I could ever manage to see while I was with you. The sky began to clear for me, though, on your side of Paradise. It cleared while I was hanging from the cross and watching the circus of death around me. It is hard not to focus solely on what is happening to you at a the time of an execution, but the focus in that trash heap outside Jerusalem was never on me.
The crowd was not the typical group who never missed a public execution. Yes, there were the usual suspects, families with picnic baskets and bottles of wine, out to celebrate the deaths of crooked criminals, having convinced themselves that one more death would make them feel that much safer. On my own death day, if you noticed, the crowd also included the most powerful religious, political, and military leaders in Jerusalem, people who convict but who rarely spectate at executions.
The Jerusalem leaders came to our field of crosses not so much to make sure I died, but that he died. Of everyone in the crowd, they were the one shouting the loudest. “Save yourself, Messiah!” “If you are the mighty King of the Jews, save us from Mighty Rome.” Even a fellow thief on a nearby cross, used his few breaths to shout, “Save yourself and us, for that matter!”
I thought to myself, “Save us from what?” “Why save us?” was something I also thought. As you are painfully aware, I was guilty. There was no saving me from that hard and ugly truth. Still they shouted:  “Save us!” Most of the shouts were not serious. They were terrible taunts of the one beside me, also bleeding from every pore of his body, a so-called “Savior” who could not manage to even save himself. They shouted their obscenities as if he was getting exactly what he deserved.

I did not join them. I can’t tell you what it was that made me say what I finally said, made me not join in the heated chorus of hate. It wasn’t because I was above their petty, ignorant, chants. I was a criminal. Maybe that was it. Something about a criminal knows another criminal, as if both are wearing an unmistakable badge of dishonor. There was nothing criminal about this man. I even heard him cry out, “Forgive, forgive them, for they have no idea what they are doing.” He prayed for the very ones who were executing him. Trust me, I did not join him.
 To this day, I do not know why I did not join the chorus. How did I know that there was so much more to this man than could be contained by a cross? What I did know is that I was not going to ask him to save me. Save me for what? Save me from what was coming to me until I found myself up here again a few years later? I did not want him to save me. I wanted so much more. So, I asked him. I asked more of him than I had ever asked of anyone. I asked more than I even knew I was asking. 
I asked him to “remember me.” I don’t know if you were close enough at that moment to hear me utter those words. If you were, I can only imagine you thought that the pain had made me lose my mind. Asking another dying man to “remember” must have sounded like asking a sheep to dance.  
As you know, I had never been much of a believer in God. It seemed like a game for simple fools and I may have been a criminal, but I was no fool. I listened to this man hanging next to me and somehow it finally made sense, all this God talk. Somehow I knew that I did not have to go looking for God, God was hanging next to me on a cross. This God was not the powerful tyrant of my childhood. I had left that God behind years ago. No, this God was far more powerful than any tyrant. This God was willing to love and forgive, even the very ones dealing in death.
So, I asked him to “remember me” and he said something that still brings chills to me. He said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” And, he kept his word. I did join him but I can no more explain Paradise to you now than I could when he first spoke those words to me. The best I can manage is to say that Paradise is being known by God, God finding us even when do not know that we are lost.
Whatever sense you make of your own lives all these years later and whatever grief over me still grips you, I ask you not to remember that horrible day, but to remember the one who was hanging next to me. He spoke words of forgiveness that only made the crowd laugh that much louder. He meant every word, including his promise for me to join him in Paradise.
Mom and Dad, I do not know if you still pray, but if you do, I commend a simple prayer that opened a new reality to me. I prayed that he remember me someday, when he came into his kingdom. He answered me not “someday” but “today.”
I write you today hoping that you will pray the same words I prayed that dreadful day. Pray “remember me.” When you do, you might well find yourself with one foot already in what is my home, in a place called Paradise.  

Monday, November 14, 2016

Human Faces of Stewardship

Human Faces of Stewardship
Texts: I Peter 4:10; Mark 6:35-36; II Samuel 24:21-25
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 11-13-2016)

Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.  I Peter 4:10
          The early church faced so many fears. How to live in faith amid a hostile Roman culture? What should be expected of a member of this new church? How would one church relate to a church in another city? Were there enough gifts in the church to keep it alive and thriving? Into this morass of daunting questions, Peter speaks these challenging words, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received” (I Peter 4:10).
          For Peter, stewardship is the foundational reality for the church in any age. Some mistake “stewardship” as a dusty, old word for “church fundraising.” I Peter knows otherwise; it knows that stewardship is a timeless theological word, reminding us of the amazing and expansive grace of God. Therefore, the first response of a “good” steward is sheer awe over having been made “stewards of the manifold grace of God,” coupled with profound thanksgiving for God’s bountiful and undeserved grace.
          Over my years in ministry, I have had the privilege of seeing the human faces of stewardship. Let me tell about a birthday-mate of mine, a person who taught me much about stewardship and who died at the age of 104. I will not use her real name, but will call her Franny for this story.  
          Franny and I celebrated our birthdays together until her death a few years back. She was a remarkable woman, a loyal church person, who lived modestly all her life. When she died, people came out of the woodwork telling me how she and her husband had put them through college, always anonymously, always without fanfare, all from a regional orphanage.
          For 104 years, Franny gave abundantly to the benefit of others, a quietly “good steward” of the manifold grace of God.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are trying to have some down time,

but with little success. Mark writes:

“When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat." Mark 6:35-36

Jesus leads the disciples to a deserted place, ostensibly for some rest and relaxation, but actually for them to undergo their own bout with temptation. Faced with a hungry mob, the disciples say, “Send them away, Jesus. We don’t have nearly enough food to feed this crowd.” Jesus, then, engages them with the key Kingdom stewardship question:  “How much do you have?”
Jesus does not ask: “How much does your neighbor have?” or “How much do you wish you had?” but “how much do you have?” The clear answer in Mark’s story is that followers of Jesus have enough, with God’s help, have enough to address the human need before them.
As we prepare for our “Stewardship Town Hall” in a few minutes, perhaps that is the key question before Cove, “How much do we have?” When most of us are asked that question, we usually begin where the disciples do in this story:  we point out all that is lacking. “Lord, we’ve got tuition to pay and debt to climb out of and taxes due and family obligations to meet.”
Jesus invites us to enter the stewardship conversation through a different door, not from the door of scarcity, from all that we are lacking, but from the Kingdom door of abundance, as we ask ourselves: “How much do we have?” “How much has God given us to tend and to use liberally and graciously?” When we walk through the door of abundance, God opens our eyes both to resources we often ignore and to human need that awaits our compassion and sacrifice.
If this story from Mark says nothing else, it says that by God’s grace, you and I have enough to make a difference in Covesville, in North Garden, in Charlottesville, in the United States, and across God’s beloved world!
          The most abundant steward I ever knew was surely the most unlikely one as the world measures wealth and the capacity to give. He was a retired railroad man in Wilmington, NC. 
I told you a part of his story soon after arrived. Allow me to tell you the rest of the story. He had severe emphysema and lived in a house that needed considerable repair. At the end of each visit, he would go his desk, gather up all the offering envelopes since our last visit, write a check to the church, then put a rubber band around all the envelopes and check. He would hand them to me to give to the church treasurer.
I felt like a thief, taking from someone who had so much need and so few resources. Finally, after several visits, I suggested that he keep the money because the church was doing just fine and he had so many needs to address. Somehow, he found his breath, looked me in the eyes and said, “Young man, never deny someone the privilege to return to the Lord what the Lord has given.” I took the holy bundle of envelopes and checks and said, “Thank you.”
This retired railroad man knew more about the abundance of God than I and taught me a valuable lesson about what it means to be a “good steward” of the manifold grace of God.
          King David had a proclivity for getting in trouble and the text for today finds him in trouble again, needing to make a sacrifice to appease God’s anger. He goes to visit one of his subjects, Arunah, who insists that David use his threshing floor and animals for a sacrifice at no charge.

 II Samuel 24:24
 24 But the king said to Araunah, "No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing."
David, who so often gets it wrong, in this case, gets it right. He refuses to let someone else make an offering to God on his behalf. He realizes that good stewards give from what they have been given. They give generously and sacrificially and personally.
Fast forward to Manhattan a few years ago and meet Danielle.
Danielle was one of the poorest children in Heidi Neumark’s South Bronx parish. Danielle’s mother was a crack addict and her uncle was physically abusive. Heidi writes:  “One hot day when a swimming trip was planned for the afternoon, Danielle was brought to my office in tears. It turned out that she didn’t have a bathing suit. We decided that it would be all right to skip the morning math lesson and go out to get a suit. The trip took us out over lunchtime, and so we stopped at a nearby McDonald’s, where Danielle ordered a Happy Meal. She got up and came back with some extra napkins. Then she began divvying up the small bag of fries into five little piles, each on its own napkin. I asked her what she was doing. ‘My sisters and brothers will feel sad that I got French fries and they didn’t’, she explained. ‘I’m taking them home to share’. Sitting there in McDonald’s with Danielle, I felt rich” (Breathing Space, p. 124). Even at such a young age, Danielle was a “good steward” of the manifold grace of God?
          Who has taught you about living a gracious life, a hospitable life, a forgiving life, a generous life? Who has helped you know that you and I are recipients of the abundant grace of God and stewards of that abundance?
          In a short period of time with you, my list of abundant Cove stewards is already long. I suspect yours is even longer.
So, as we wake each morning and go to bed each night, may we give thanks to God for the remarkable privilege of being entrusted as “good stewards” of the manifold grace of God.

Monday, November 7, 2016

To Fear Nothing but the Loss of You

To Fear Nothing but the Loss of You
                                                   Text: Luke 21:5-19
         (Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 11/6/2016)

At the close of Gail Godwin’s marvelous novel, Evensong, Margaret, an aging Episcopal priest, writes: “Please accept with all my love this inner and outer chronicle . . . when so many things were on their way to us, things we neither anticipated nor, in some cases, ever could have imagined. This is the story of how we met them and were changed by them. May we continue to meet what is coming to us with courage of heart. `Until, Dear Lord’, as my father used to pray, `you gather us into your household and assign us to our rightful rooms.’ Until then, he would always continue, `keep us generous and faithful and teach us to fear nothing but the loss of you.’” (405).

This time four years ago I was just out of the hospital recovering from a nasty e-coli infection. I was hooked up to home IVs, with barely enough strength to climb the steps to our bedroom. A month earlier than that, I had been in the same hospital, but as a healthy pastor visiting congregation members who were sick. “Things we neither anticipated nor, in some cases, ever could have imagined,” writes Godwin. If you ask survivors of Hurricane Matthew in the village of Trou Jacques, Haiti, I imagine many would speak Margaret’s words as well, “Things we neither anticipated nor, in some cases, ever could have imagined.”   
 As Jesus leads his disciples into Jerusalem, events are about to unfold beyond which any could anticipate or ever have imagined. Arriving at the magnificent Jerusalem Temple, his disciples are struck by its sheer size, its glorious stonework and its intricate architectural design. They are in awe. Two weeks ago, I was back in Washington, D.C. and driving past many of our national monuments. Again, I was struck by the sheer size, glorious stonework, and intricate design. I was simply in awe.   
Jesus challenges his disciples’ jaw-dropping gazing. He says: “These things you are gazing at, are in awe of – the time is coming when not one stone will be left upon another; they will all be thrown down.” Or, said in another way, “my friends, re-examine what you notice and what you find truly awe-inspiring.”
Earlier in the temple, Jesus asks, “Did anyone take notice that the leaders of the glorious, magnificently constructed temple, who are supposed to defend the rights of poor widows, do not blink an eye when a poor widow gives away her last cent to the temple?” “Did anyone notice that the person who teaches the most about abundance and generosity in the temple is not a religious leader but an anonymous poor widow?” “Did anyone notice that within this superb stonework is a rotten institution that is about to crumble?”
Then, sounding more like a mental patient than a Messiah, Jesus describes the doom awaiting the world, a terror greater than anything they “ever could have imagined.” However, even amid this horrid, terrifying scene, Jesus also says, “When the world collapses around you, including everyone in whom and everything in which you have trusted, you can trust in me.”
In the novel, Evensong, as Margaret ages, she learns to cherish the last part of her father’s prayer. Taken partly from a collect in the Book of Common Prayer, this prayer asks God to: “keep us generous and faithful and teach us to fear nothing but the loss of you.” In this bizarre and disturbing apocalyptic text from Luke today, Jesus does not reassure them that their wealth will insulate them from tragedy. He does not suggest that poetic preachers and lilting songs will enchant them into spiritual ecstasy. Jesus assures them, only, that this world and all therein is tottering between chaos and collapse and that a day will come when everything they count as sacred – religion, family, leaders – will betray them, will leave them bereft, but he will not.
Until that day, Margaret prays, “Keep us generous.” As you and I prepare to give thanks with friends and family later this month and as we consider how we will give generously to the ministry of Cove in the coming year, perhaps, it is wise for us to pause and remember a poor, anonymous, widow in the Jerusalem Temple, and then to pray: “Dear God, keep us generous.”
Margaret also prays, “Keep us faithful.” Jesus says, “Believe in me even when the world in total chaos, even when your life is in total chaos. Believe in me when you are at a loss for words, for I am the word of God.” I can think of no time in my ministry when “keep us faithful” is a more essential prayer and yet a more difficult practice. We live in a society where it is fine to be faithful, just as long as our faith does not put too many demands on us. After all, we are very busy people.  
What if praying “keep us faithful,” though, means living into new priorities, means committing to the weekly discipline of learning and worship, to the daily discipline of reading Scripture and lifting our prayers to God? What if praying “keep us faithful” means that you and I actually talk to others about our faith in God when most of our society would prefer that we keep silent? What if praying “keep us faithful” means that Jesus was dead serious when he promised in the most inopportune and critical times, “I will give you words”? What if “keep us faithful” means praying for our enemies when we would rather tell God fifty reasons why we must get even, protesting for peace even when pundits tell us, “It does not make any difference”?   
Margaret’s prayer ends with this petition, “[Dear Lord] Teach us to fear nothing but the loss of you.” Listen to the current rhetoric and ads of our political candidates and there is no question that in our land fear has unpacked its suitcase and moved in to stay. Fear infects our intellect, our public discourse, and it stifles our faith. Fear is on the front cover of every newspaper and is the lead story of every news cycle.

Too often, I suffer from a bad case of fear. I fear what will happen to the millions of refugees forgotten not just in Syria but across the globe. I fear the racism that couches itself in righteous political rhetoric about the character of our current President, who, oh by the way, just happens to be black. I fear the cold nights ahead when cities across our nation of plenty will have more women and children needing shelter than there are shelters to house them. Far too often, I live in fear.    
The terrifying scene that Jesus describes near the end of Luke’s Gospel sends me rushing back to an opening scene in Luke. It sends me outside, at night, to an open field and an evening sky alive with a choir of angels. It sends me staggering about in awe with frightened shepherds who hear, “Fear not, for, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” 
“Fear not, people of Cove. I bring you good tidings of great joy.” Fear not, whoever is trapped in the deep crevice of fear. I bring you good tidings of great joy.” “Fear not, those waiting for the diagnosis or the grade or the phone call. I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
The shepherds in the fields minding their flocks by night were not deluded and the disciples who left everything to follow Jesus were not duped. Fear is not our God. Fear is the impressive imposter, for our God refuses to lose us to the demonic grip of fear.  

Maybe, then, that is why we need to come to the table today. Maybe that is why we need to taste and see that the Lord is good and that the only true antidote to fear is found at this table, when we are united with God and each other far beyond our differences and light years beyond our fears.
It is at this table that you and I learn to pray daily the words of the aging priest: “May we continue to meet what is coming to us with courage of heart. Until, Dear Lord, you gather us into your household and assign us to our rightful rooms. Until then, keep us generous and faithful and teach us to fear nothing but the loss of you.”