Sunday, August 21, 2016

Let Evening Come

Before I read the Psalm for today, I invite you to listen to a poem by Jane Kenyon that I will revisit in the sermon. The poem is called: “Let Evening Come.”

Let the light of late afternoon 
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down. 

Let the cricket take up chafing   
as a woman takes up her needles   
and her yarn. Let evening come. 

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned   
in long grass. Let the stars appear 
and the moon disclose her silver horn. 

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.   
Let the wind die down. Let the shed   
go black inside. Let evening come. 

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop   
in the oats, to air in the lung   
let evening come. 

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come. 
Listen now to the poet who penned Psalm 71:
Psalm 71:1 In you, O LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.
 2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me.
 3 Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
 4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.
 5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
 6 Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother's womb. My praise is continually of you.
 7 I have been like a portent to many, but you are my strong refuge.
 8 My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all day long.


Let Evening Come
Text: Psalm 71:1-6
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 8-21-16)


Just over twenty years ago, at age of 48, the poet laureate, Jane Kenyon, died of leukemia. Terry Gross interviewed Donald Hall, Kenyon’s husband and a poet laureate himself, and asked, “Did your wife maintain a faith in God throughout her illness and death?” He responded with one word: “yes.” He did not need to say more, because Kenyon’s poetry is a running conversation about matters of faith.  
I realize that the very mention of “poetry” causes some people to break out in hives. It brings back miserable memories of digesting the syntax of John Donne or sifting through the sonnets of William Shakespeare. It conjures up the “know it all” student on the front row, always waving his hand and insisting:  “Oh, I know, I know, what that poem means.” Poetry gives some people a literary headache wishing that the poet would stop speaking in metaphors and just say what she means.  
So, why do we have to listen to poetry in church? The answer to that question is clear. Whenever we listen to significant parts of Scripture, we are listening to poetry, or at least, the poetic. From the magnificent first creation story in Genesis to the soothing image of the Shepherd in the 23rd psalm to the mysterious incarnation story at the opening of John’s Gospel, poetry, the Bible, and faith dance on the same ballroom floor.
Jane Kenyon knew that truth. In Terry Gross’s interview with Donald Hall, soon after Jane’s death, he explained: “Faith did not keep her from suffering. Often there were long hours of the night when there was no grace present, and there was suffering and despair." I am grateful for Hall’s honesty. I can pay attention to a poet who holds faith and suffering together and does not insist on the spiritual nonsense that real faith somehow eliminates suffering.  
Hall explains that when he and Kenyon moved to Eagle Pond Farm, they "got into the habit of going to church" because that is what the neighbors expected of them. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Kenyon observed: "Before I knew what had happened to me, I'd become a believer”—not in the frightening God of her childhood, but in "a God who, if you ask, forgives you no matter how far down in the well you are. If I didn't believe that I couldn't live."


Kenyon’s faith is expressed with sheer elegance and beauty in her poem, “Let Evening Come.” The closing stanza invites evening to come, be it the evening of our struggles, the evening of our despair, even the evening of our death: “Let it come, as it will, and don't be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come.”
A few years ago, a troubled young man brought his loaded automatic weapon into the McNair Elementary School in Dekalb County, just outside Atlanta. On that day, every Atlanta resident feared another tragic story of gun violence gone mad. On this day, though, the story had a different ending.
Antoinette Tuff, an office worker at the school, was on call that day. The troubled young white man, carrying a AK47, entered the school and shot off several rounds of ammunition to get everyone’s attention. That is all the news could tell us.
 Later we learned that inside the school office, though, a much different story was unfolding. Mrs. Tuff talked to Donald Hill not as a madman brandishing an automatic weapon, but as a deeply troubled child of God, even as she had been deeply troubled recently when her husband of 33 years had left her. She spoke these simple words to him as she would have hoped someone would have spoken them to her, “Sweetie, it will be okay.”
The conversation continued and not much time passed before Donald Hill was telling Mrs. Tuff his own plight and then set aside his gun without a person being harmed. Anderson Cooper of CNN asked Antoinette if she considered herself a hero. No, she considered herself a vessel for God and that her recent life experiences had prepared her for this terrifying moment.
What did she want people to walk away learning from this experience, asked Cooper. She hoped that through this experience people might come to know that God really does exist and that God was there that day for her, for the children, and for the “man with a gun.”
When evening came in her all-too-short life, the poet Jane Kenyon was not finally overcome with fear and dread. When evening came and the air was thick with the prospect of death at the McNair Elementary school, the office administrator, Antoinette Tuff, was not finally overcome with fear and dread.
At the heart of Kenyon’s poetry and Tuff’s calming words, you can hear the cries of the poet in Psalm 71: “You are my hope, O LORD, my refuge since youth.” The psalmist looks back over his life that has often been filled with pain and suffering. Yet, his is a life that has been grounded in trust in a God who hears our prayers and stands with us when the trials of life should “threaten to undo us,” even “when evening comes,” our God “does not leave us comfortless.”
  The God we meet in Psalm 71 is not a God promising refuge from the rough and often harsh, indisputable realities of our own mortality. Psalm 71 is about a God who does not forsake us even when we are feeling the most forsaken. It is the God who answers the cry in the dark: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” with the dawn of an empty tomb on Easter morning.
Long before he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in D.C., the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon called:  “Our God is Able.” In the sermon, King tells the back story of his leadership in the Montgomery bus boycott. Almost daily, he got threatening phone calls, had rocks thrown through the windows of his home, and he worried for his own life and for the well-being of his family.
King writes: “I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. . . ‘I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone’.
“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before . . . It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever’. Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. . . . the outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm” (Strength to Love, p. 113).
Both King at midnight and Tuff at midday dispel any notion that taking refuge in God is some sort of magical protection from the worst that life has to offer us, some sort of Harry Potter “Invisibility Cloak.” To trust that God is our refuge gives us confidence to walk through the toughest trials of life, and in Tuff and King’s cases, courage to confront violence with nonviolent love, thereby, ultimately to disarm violence.
To trust that God is our refuge is to sing with Martin Luther: “And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed God’s truth to triumph through us.” To trust that God is our refuge is to cry out with the psalmist: “From my mother’s womb You brought me out. To You is my praise always.” To trust that God is our refuge is to walk into every evening, even the evening of our own dying, with confidence that our God “does not leave us comfortless.”
“In you, O LORD, I take refuge,” says the psalmist. So breathe deeply, trust God fully, and “let evening come.”

          AMEN 

Monday, August 15, 2016

One Wild and Precious Life

One Wild and Precious Life
Text:  Luke 12:49-56
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 8-14-2016)


In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes cited one of the few restrictions on the First Amendment. He said, “You cannot yell fire in a crowded theater.” I wonder what the good judge would have said about the words Jesus speaks in our text from Luke. Listen to the one shouting fire in the crowded theater:

49 'I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!
50 There is a baptism I must still receive, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!
51 'Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.
52 For from now on, a household of five will be divided: three against two and two against three;
53 father opposed to son, son to father, mother to daughter, daughter to mother, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law to mother-in-law.'
54 He said again to the crowds, 'When you see a cloud looming up in the west you say at once that rain is coming, and so it does.
          55 And when the wind is from the south you say it's going to be hot, and it is.
56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the face of the earth and the sky. How is it you do not know how to interpret these times?
                    The Word of the Lord.
                    Thanks be to God.
True confession. I nearly punted when I read these words of Jesus. Living in a world as sharply divided as ours and living in a country specializing in political division, why listen to Jesus talk about causing even more division?
Surely, Jesus was having a bad day, got a little too worked up, and then said some things he wish he had not. Anyone who speaks in public knows the temptation to get carried away, so why not give Jesus a break, let his incendiary words be forgotten and sink into the growing netherworld of words that should never have been uttered? Actually, as a preacher, I find it strangely comforting to know that even Jesus could have a bad preaching day!
Before I decided to skip this text and find one more pleasing to the ear, I read it carefully in the Greek and it actually got worse. In Greek, the first two sentences begin with the words, FIRE and BAPTISM, as a point of emphasis. Most English translations loose this emphasis. Even worse, they soften the opening words of Jesus about the impending fire, “how I wish it were already kindled” when actually the Greek reads not nearly so pensively. The sentiment Jesus is describing is much more like the feeling just before having a root canal, without anesthesia. “How I wish this root canal were already over” just does not cut it.   
The preacher who is speaking in Luke today is not the sweet, baby Jesus being cuddled by Mary or the gentle shepherd that you can see in the obligatory all-white-shepherd picture hanging in almost every church building in America. It is not the Jesus who has been on the road too long, has not had enough sleep, who has heard the same stupid question from the crowd one too many times, and who is ready for someone to give him the proper respect.
The Jesus who is preaching is about to face something far worse than a root canal botched. He is heading to Jerusalem, where the chorus of “hosannas” will quickly turn to the angry cry of “crucify him.” This is the Jesus who will soon be nailed to his own killing tree in Golgotha.
The Jesus preaching in Luke 12 is the Jesus who is not asking for a minute of our time when we can spare it or a leftover dollar or two when we have some change in our pocket. This Jesus is not asking us to cast our vote for him, as he runs for emperor on a platform of family values. This Jesus has come to ask of us the most important, the most fundamental question of our lives.
In her amazing poem, A Summer Day, the poet Mary Oliver writes:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper? . . .

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

         

That is the question Jesus asks in today’s text. “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” He asks this question not just this one time, but he asks it with his entire life, with his in-your-face challenge to make following him more than a happy habit or a mindless obligation, but the well-thought-through, core direction of our lives.  
I am grateful to John’s brother, Alex Evans, for reminding me about an incident involving Clarence Jordan. Jordan was a Southern Baptist and a fine biblical scholar. He lived “in Georgia and started an interracial farming community in 1942 call Koinonia. It was there at Koinonia that Millard Fuller came for a retreat and formed the idea of Habitat for Humanity.
“Before Jordan’s community gave birth to Habitat, he was a pioneer in the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Jordan would often preach as a guest in pulpits across the south, but after congregations heard his message of equality for all people of all colors, he was rarely invited back. On one occasion, he gave a sermon that called for the country to stop the practice of segregation. After the sermon, a lady came up to him and said, ‘My granddaddy was an officer in the Confederate army and would not believe a word that you said about race relations’. Clarence Jordan smiled sweetly and said, ‘Well ma’am, your choice is very clear then. You can follow your granddaddy, or you can follow Jesus’.” (see M. Felton & J. Proctor-Murphy, Living the Questions, p. 87).
          Jesus does not ask for our occasional attention or our polite applause as if he has given a perfectly fine performance that we can talk about on our way home and then move on with our lives. He asks for our entire lives, our bodies, our souls, our minds, our hearts. He wants to burn away with baptism fire anything that keeps us watching from the sidelines or sitting in the balcony, a safe distance away.
In her provocative piece about the power of the people of God, Annie Dillard argues that when Christians join in worship of the crucified and risen Jesus, they are like:  “ . . . children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT . . . It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return” (“Teaching a Stone to Talk”).
FIRE. Jesus wants to burn away all the excuses we cling to that keep us quiet when we should speak, lethargic when we should take action, tepid when we should burn with Gospel justice. Jesus has come to bring FIRE to the earth, but it is not scorched earth FIRE; it is FIRE that destroys the dross that we cannot do ourselves.  Elizabeth Peters writes, “One of my divinity school professors used to say wryly, ‘If we could save ourselves, then the crucifixion was a massive overreaction on God’s part’.” [Christian Century, August 3, 2016, p. 18].
          “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That is the question Jesus shouted out to two stinking fishers by the Galilean sea. That is the question Jesus shouted out to the rich young man who wanted to know how he could get best positioned to “inherit” eternal life. That is the question Jesus shouted out to Pilate just before he took a towel and washed his hands of the whole affair.
          “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” May that question burn in every last one of us, every day, with life-giving fire!

          AMEN

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Homeland

Homeland
Text:  Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 8-7-2016)

The fastest growing religious group in America is NONEs. That is not N-U-N; it is NONE. The NONEs are those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” They argue that the ways and worship of the traditional church obstructs their relationship with God. They lament how most churches major in the minors, and as a result, actually distract people from paying attention to Jesus.
As a pastor in my fourth decade of ministry, I do not underestimate or belittle the legitimate complaints of the NONEs. In fact, it is tempting to get my own NONE card. After all, how many hours have I spent in endless church committee meetings debating matters that matter little to almost anyone? How many weeks have I spent trying to assuage hurt feelings of a member because of something done or something said that was hardly helpful and often hurtful? How often have I wished for two toothpicks to keep my eyes open as someone got on his doctrinal soapbox and recited his position about “you name it” for the fiftieth time? How many times have I wished I could take every last member’s hand and lead them outside, point in every direction and say, “Friends, the church is out here! Let’s go be it”?
Far more seriously, how long have I been a part of a church that has tolerated homophobia and has given it an ignorant Scriptural shine? How long have I led a church that gave lip service to non-violence as if Jesus were just kidding when he addressed an angry mob, saying: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword”? How long have I listened to good Christian people justify why the church is still more racially segregated than any other public institution?
Maybe it is time to say a fond farewell to Cove and join the growing congregation of NONEs. The time seems right, since Jennell and I are living, albeit temporarily, atop Afton Mountain in a secluded, beautiful spot that overlooks Nelson and Albemarle Counties. It is just the two of us, an occasional bear, and God. Why not sit on the deck and sip some coffee or wine, read the paper, relax and then take our place in the growing NONE Revolution? Who really needs the messiness of church life? Who needs one more obligation?
I did sent off for the NONE paperwork, but hard as I try, I cannot join them. As often as I get frustrated, even maddened with church life, I cannot be a NONE because I do not know how to be a Christian alone; I have no clue how to be “spiritual” alone.
Last week, I told you one tidbit about your new pastor. I wear hearing aids and you should feel free to fuss at me when I am not wearing them. The tidbit for this week is that I love to play golf. To be perfectly clear, I did not say that I am a good golfer, but I do love to play the game.
I love golf so much that sometimes I go out by myself and join another three golfers to make a foursome. Inevitably when play slows down and we are just standing around, someone will ask:  “Gary, what do you do for a living?” When I tell them that I am a pastor, two things always happen. First, they apologize for the language they have used for the past hour, clearly not having listened to my own. Second, they apologize for not going to church or going rarely at best. Finally, after their cursory confessions, they almost always say something like this: “Well, you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”
For years, I ignored that comment and played on. No more. Now, I say what I believe to be true, “I respectfully disagree. Christianity is ultimately a team sport.” Yes, I know better than you all the ways that the church of any and every denomination can get in the way of our personal relationship with God and can add roadblocks to following Jesus. I can publish a laundry list of all the ways that the church falls short of the glory of God, including its preachers.
Even so, I have not joined the NONEs and will not join the NONEs, because, despite all its failings, the church is the beloved community of God, the one that on its best days resembles and points to that “better country,” that “homeland” about which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes. By church, I do not mean glorious buildings, elegantly simple like the Cove Church or even elaborately ornate like St. Peter’s in Rome. I mean the flawed and fantastic people of God who join to set their sights on home by following Jesus together, sometimes stumbling, sometimes hurdling, but always doing so together.

As a boy in Sunday School, I learned the first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism, an ancient method to teach the Christian faith. The question is:  “What is the chief end of human life?” The answer is: “To glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” Now, you and I can surely worship God, glorify God by walking along the beach, hiking in the mountains, tending our gardens, setting out on a solitary spiritual journey, even taking “a good walk spoiled.”
Ultimately, though, you and I were created to worship God together, to do mission together, to tend to church grounds together, to visit those unable to make it to church together, to advocate against all forms of injustice together, to laugh together. Together, you and I track in the footsteps of Abram and Sarah and all the saints since who have searched for a “better country,” searched not to “Make America Great Again,” but to seek a “homeland” not of our making, not with any national lines, but a “homeland” where we bask in the never-setting sun of God’s goodness and grace.  
In May, I attended the longest church service of my life in the tiny village of Trou Jacques in Haiti. In that sanctuary, my skin color made it impossible for me not to stand out. My inability to speak Creole left me often lost in worship and feeling isolated. Most faces were friendly, but almost all were unfamiliar. I felt so far from home.

Then music began and we started to sing, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” the crowd in Creole, our group in English. The bread was broken and wine was poured and the gifts of God were distributed to us all and though far, far away, my true “homeland” surfaced and my family grew far larger and much more diverse. This table has a way of expanding our idea of home and tearing down any notions that we can live faithfully at home alone.
          I realize that there is a certain irony and also safety in preaching a sermon about the NONEs when they are not present to make their case. That is where you enter the picture. Kristin will post this sermon on the Cove website this afternoon. I invite you to share this sermon with NONEs in your family, with NONEs in your neighborhood, with NONEs working next to you in the office, with NONEs at your favorite bar or favorite music venue, with NONEs at your gym or in your book club.
Why? Because we need the NONEs. We need them to point out where we are stuck in old worship ways that block their way home. We need them to share their fresh ideas of how to tell and to live the old, old story in new ways. We need them because without them there are too many empty seats at this Homeland table.  
You and I are the beloved community of God seeking our true Homeland. All are welcome on this journey. May no one stay away.

AMEN

Sunday, July 31, 2016

More

Who Asked Jesus Anyway?!
(Text: Luke 12:13-21)
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 7-31-2016)


          As a general practice, it is wise to stay out of family squabbles, especially ones involving money. Hats off to Jesus for doing just that! In today’s text, an angry brother comes to Jesus asking for help with a family financial dispute. Obviously, this angry brother is not the executor of the estate, so he comes to Jesus to side with him and set matters right: “Tell my brother to stop hoarding the inheritance and give me what is rightfully mine.”
          That seems a fair enough request. Jesus, though, proves more annoying than helpful. He does not rush to the fix the family problem. Instead, he gives the begrudged brother a lecture. He warns him not to get caught in the trap of greed and cautions him that life does not consist of the number of our possessions.
That is not the answer that the angry brother is looking for from Jesus. And, to make matters worse, Jesus goes on to tell the angry brother a long, ponderous story. It is a tale about a farmer, who Jesus gives the nickname, “the rich fool.”
At first glance, the nickname seems ridiculous. In the great American story, the farmer is no fool; he is “Mr. Success.” He has done what I have been taught to do since childhood. Excel. Be successful. Accumulate enough for a rainy day, a snowy day, even a long stretch of sunny days.  The farmer has built a fortune for his retirement. No family members will need to care for him. He is independent now and he will be independent all his days, thanks to a huge nest egg that he has amassed.  
          The farmer can even quote Scripture to justify his action. After all, the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Joseph tells the Pharaoh to build lots of barns to stock up for seven lean years ahead. Nor does Jesus portray the farmer as a crooked businessman who has gained his riches illegally by bilking others and skipping out on his bills. He is not someone who has made his wealth by ripping others off. In fact, most of us would call him financially prudent and admirable. So, why does the successful, financially prudent businessman get nicknamed, “rich fool” by none other than Jesus?
In full disclosure, preachers absolutely love this parable, especially as the leaves turn their autumn colors and churches start to solicit funds for the next year’s budget. Preachers cite the closing punch line of the parable with vigor:  “But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'” What usually follows then is the preacher extolling members of the congregation to stop building barns, after all, they preach, “Your money will do you no good in the grave, so spread it around and let me tell how to make a huge check out to the church!”
That preacher riff on the parable is not at all uncommon, but I suggest it is also not that helpful. Like most parables of Jesus, this ones goes far deeper than a biblical prop for churches and pastors who are anxious to meet a budget.
The real problem with the farmer in this parable is that he has a very serious pronoun problem. The relentless use of the first person pronouns ‘I’ and ‘my’ betray a preoccupation with self,” writes Lutheran pastor and professor, David Lose. “There is no thought to using the abundance to help others, no expression of gratitude for his good fortune, no recognition of God at all. The farmer has fallen prey to worshiping the most popular of gods: the Unholy Trinity of ‘me, myself, and I’. This leads to, and is most likely caused by, a second mistake. He is not foolish because he makes provision for the future; he is foolish because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his future: ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’."
Just out of Seminary, I was called to serve a fine church in Wilmington, North Carolina. The hardest pastoral visit I made every few months was to a dirt poor retired railroad worker with severe emphysema. He had no family and his house was an absolute wreck. If I was honest with myself, I felt sorry for the man. He was so restricted and he had so little.
There was an uncomfortable ritual that ended each visit. This gentleman would go to his desk, open the top drawer, and pull out a bunch of church offering envelopes with a check in each one. He would then bundle them together with a rubber band, hand them to me, and ask that I give them to the church treasurer.

I hated that ritual at the end of every visit. So one day, I decided to try to write a different ending to our visits. I told him, “Sir, the church budget is really strong right now. Many people are even ahead in their giving from what we expected. It seems like you need this money more than the church does right now, so thank you but why don’t you keep it and use it for yourself.” Many years later, I cringe when I hear myself saying these words, but I was young, if that is any excuse.
After I invited this man to keep his money, he spoke and spoke, for the first time, without struggling for every breath. He looked at me without as much as a pause and said, “Young man, never deny someone the privilege of returning to the Lord a portion of what the Lord has given him.” I had no response. I took the offering envelopes and crawled to the car.
The angry brother, the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, and the young preacher in Wilmington, N.C. never understood what a dirt poor retired railroad worker knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. All good gifts, our intellect, our family, the good earth, and the list goes on, are gifts that God gives us to steward but never to own, to share, but never to hoard, to sow seeds for others, but never to harvest only for ourselves. More stuff does not secure our future, says Jesus, even if it is our rightful due to inherit it.
Throughout the course of my ministry, I have come to know and love many rich women and men, a few of whom also had a good bit of money, all of whom enjoyed giving and living for others with wild abandon.
I wonder whatever happened to that angry brother. Did he get his rightful inheritance? When he did, did it calm him down and make him dance with glee? Or did it leave him counting each coin wondering why he got less than the brother who was the executor of the estate? Did he ever once think about investing his energy in helping others and sharing with others what he already had? Did he ever pause to thank God for the very gift of life?
I wonder what Jesus would say to affluent America today when thousands go to bed hungry each night while political rhetoric is never about them. I wonder what Jesus would say when thousands in America live on the streets or in shelters, like the Central Night Shelter in Atlanta, where we housed 90 men every night, while it is the rare political leader who uses her political capital to advocate for affordable housing.  I wonder what Jesus would say when the fastest growing industry in many states in our country is private prisons, while there is little political will to rethink our criminal justice system.
The angry young brother wants more, wants his rightful due. Jesus asks the angry brother what he is doing with all that he already has. Many angry Americans want more than what we have. Jesus asks each one of us what we are doing with what we already have.
Well, who asked Jesus anyway?!     

AMEN

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Prayer



The Doorway into Thanks
Luke 11:1-13
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 7-24-2016)

I have been praying a lot lately. Praying for you and for me as we begin this new journey together. Praying for loved ones that Jennell and I left behind in Atlanta, including our two children. Praying for civility and truth-telling to find a prominent place in public debate. Praying for so many of my friends who keep being reminded, and far too often, that black lives matter little. Praying for law enforcement officers caught in the deadly social crossfire of violence gone wild. Praying for a large percentage of people today who see God as nothing more than an artifact of days gone by, see Jesus as nothing more than just another good guy who died too young, and see the Holy Spirit as nothing more than silly church hocus pocus.
I have been praying a lot lately. I have always wished that my prayers were more eloquent. While a student at Union, I would rush to my Hebrew class, not so much because I loved Hebrew, but because of the prayers that Sib Towner would pray at the start of each class. The eloquence of his prayers would move my soul for hours and I always left class wishing, “How I wish I could pray like Dr. Towner.”
Eloquent or not, I have been praying a lot lately. It is not that praying is new to me. I grew up in a family that prayed daily, but our family prayers were largely Prayer 101. We prayed at the dinner table every night, but never at breakfast and never at lunch. I still am not quite sure why. My late brother, Dale, and I were instructed to pray at bedtime, but those instructions were often ignored, especially as we approached our teen years. As I finished Seminary, I still did not pray as eloquently as I wished, but I knew much more about prayer. At least, I thought I did. Then, I entered the church and I realized that I had a lifetime of learning left about prayer.
I wonder in today’s text if the disciples of Jesus ask him such an odd question because he made them realize whole new dimensions to prayer. After all, why would these disciples who had prayed several times a day, every day, all their lives, ask Jesus:  “Lord, teach us how to pray.” Surely their request was more than about technique:  “Do we stand to pray or kneel or sit with our eyes closed?” “Is it best to craft long, eloquent prayers or to sit for extended periods in silent prayer?” Maybe the disciples saw something in the quality of Jesus’ prayer life that made them want to learn more about this mysterious human act, an act that, for them, had long since lost any mystery.
When I announced that I was leaving Central Presbyterian in Atlanta to accept the call from Cove, the best advice I was given was by a relatively new member. He encouraged me to spend my remaining time at Central not making sure every detail was in place prior to my departure. Instead, he encouraged me to spend this leaving time in giving thanks.


It was soon after his sage advice that I came upon these wise words from the marvelous poet, Mary Oliver in her book, Thirst:
“Praying
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”

Mary Oliver had to be reading my mind when she wrote these words, because
ever since my Hebrew class, too often prayer has been some kind of spiritual contest to offer the most eloquent prayers. I love it when she says about our prayers, “patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks.” 
I wonder if the disciples asked what they asked because they noticed that for
Jesus, prayer was always “the doorway into thanks.” Jesus tells his friends that prayer is not primarily utilitarian as are most of my prayers: “God, help me with this.” “God, we could sure use some of that.” “God, give us direction, give us a sign.” These utilitarian prayers are perfectly fine prayers, natural prayers, and are even a part of how Jesus teaches his disciples to pray:  “Give us this day our daily bread.” The front door into prayer though, says Jesus, is through “the doorway into thanks.”
When you pray, says Jesus, pray: “hallowed be thy name,” “thy kingdom come,” “thy will be done.” In other words, prayer is fundamentally not about us; it is about getting in sync with the One who cares for every last DNA strand of our being, for every blade of grass, for every creature that swims the seas, dances on the earth, and soars through the sky, and especially for those who are unnoticed and excluded and ridiculed just for who they are. In those moments when we find ourselves in sync with God and in step with Jesus, we find ourselves walking gladly through “the doorway into thanks.”
I have walked through “the doorway into thanks” almost every day since that April Sunday when you voted to call me to be your pastor. I have crossed that mysterious threshold giving thanks to God for Fran and Will, Beth Neville and Renee and Susan. Even before a call had been extended, I gave thanks to God for Jane and Greg, old friends, who helped me imagine myself as your pastor. I gave thanks for Josh who went out of his way to make sure that Cove never experienced anything but fine pastoral care and inspiring worship.

In a troubled world and when our lives are troubled, it is tempting to fast forward in our prayers, skipping over thanksgiving on our way to more pressing, utilitarian prayers. To quote Jesus, “lead us not into temptation.” Instead, may God give us wisdom to follow Jesus through “the doorway into thanks.” When we do, we cross over first into a silence in which “another voice may speak.” When our thanks is coupled with silence to listen for the voice of God, prayer becomes something more than a helpful habit of the faithful; it becomes the very doorway into life.
So, this is where I need you to help me finish this sermon. Some of us have been taught since childhood not to talk in church. Today, let’s set that custom aside and instead walk together through “the doorway into thanks.” First, I invite us to sit in silence so “another voice may speak.” Then, I invite us to offer our prayers of thanksgiving, followed by prayers asking God to intercede for others and then we will offer own prayers of petition to God.
So, let us together walk through the doorway into thanks as we come before God in a time of silent prayer . . .

O God, I give thanks for this call to serve as pastor of Cove Presbyterian Church, for the trust and confidence of the people of Cove, for my family that makes my ministry possible, and for those congregations over the years, to which you entrusted to my care.
Friends at Cove, as we walk through the divine doorway into thanks, for whom and for what do you give thanks . . .

Friends at Cove, for whom and for what concerns do we ask God to intercede today . . .

          Friends at Cove, what are your own petitions that you would bring before God this morning . . .