Monday, September 26, 2016

Act Four

Act Four
Luke 16:19-31
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA  9-25-2016)

In 2004, when I was called as pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, I entered a world new to me. Not the world inside the church building so much as the world camped on the steps, in the alley, and on the sidewalks outside the building.
Day and especially at night women and men, and occasionally children,  would roll up their clothes for a pillow, carve out cardboard for a makeshift bed and shelter, and camp out on cold concrete in the winter and scorching concrete in the summer. Every night when I left Central, I tried not to dwell on the nameless folks without a home who were camping on the church grounds, since I was about to return to a comfortable home, a soft bed, with a refrigerator full of food.
 Memories of the early years at Central, trying not to notice folks living outside the church, came rushing back this week when I read the parable Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel. It is a parable that people often think is easy to pin down. I would suggest otherwise.
Some pin down this story as an anti-wealth parable. This theme is common in Luke’s Gospel. Mary sings in her Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (1:52). In an early sermon in Luke, Jesus says that God’s Reign is for the hungry and poor, and woe to those who are rich. So some conclude the parable is about the problem of having too much wealth. Maybe, but I doubt it. 
Some pin down this story as the “Jesus loves the poor” parable. In this parable, poverty’s new name is Lazarus, from Eleazar, which means, “God helps.” In an old English carol based on this parable, when the rich man sends his dogs to chase the poor beggar Lazarus from his gate, a miracle occurs when the dogs do not attack poor Lazarus but instead lick his sores. So some conclude the parable is about God’s preferential treatment of the poor. Maybe, but I think the parable goes much deeper. 
          The poet Edith Sitwell pins down the parable in yet another way. In her poem, Still Falls the Rain, she presents Lazarus and the rich man not as opposites but as fellow sufferers, each in need of the mercy of God. She writes, “Christ . . . have mercy on us--/On Dives and on Lararus:  /Under the rain the sore and the gold are as one.” Maybe this is what the parable is about, that whether rich or poor, we all stand in desperate need of the mercy of God. While this fact is true, I believe the parable wants us to go much deeper still.
 So, let me suggest another way to read this parable. Jesus tells this story in three acts. In Act One we meet the characters:  a rich man whose wealth is defended by a gate and demonstrated by royal garments and lavish meals and a poor beggar, Lazarus, who waits each day for the trash to be carried out from the rich man’s mansion. In Act One, we see the world as many then and today see it, a world designed by God, where blessings in this life are a sign of God’s favor, while poverty and hunger are signs of human sloth and Divine displeasure.
Act Two shifts from this life to the afterlife. The poor beggar is treated like the prophet Elijah as he is carried on a chariot to the halls of heaven, while the rich man is buried and tortured endlessly by heat and thirst in Hell. In Act Two, the world as we know it is turned upside down, a world in which the poor prosper and the rich suffer. Yet, in a very basic way, Act Two is simply a repeat of Act One in a new location. The rich man’s interest in Lazarus is simply in how best the beggar can serve him.   
Act Three begins with the rich man pleading with Father Abraham to send Lazarus to visit his five brothers, like Jacob Marley is sent to warn Scrooge of his impending fate. The rich man wants Lazarus to tell them of the torture that awaits them, unless they repent. Clarence Jordan, a good Georgia biblical wise man, who retold the parables in a Southern idiom, interprets Abraham’s answer to the rich man:  “Lazarus ain’t gonna run no mo’ yo’ errands, rich man.”
 I want to suggest that this parable is not yet finished, but awaits Act Four. I want to suggest that this parable is not finally about the rich and the poor or about who gets a heads up that storms are coming. I want to suggest that this parable is less about the afterlife, about eternal feasting for the poor in heaven or scorching in Hell for the rich. I want to suggest that this parable is unfinished and its true meaning is revealed as you and I live out Act Four.
Read the parable closely and the sin of the rich man is not that he is rich or even that he can be mean, sending his dogs to torment the beggar. The great sin of the rich man is not noticing. The rich man never notices Lazarus. He is just another one of the countless homeless, the annoying beggars who are best ignored. Even after his death, even sweating like a devilish dog, the rich man never notices Lazarus as anything more than a slave to serve his needs or an errand boy to carry his message.
The great sin in this parable, the real chasm in this parable is not seeing, not noticing. Until you and I can see, can notice, those who are most often stereotyped or simply ignored, then we are the poor ones no matter how much money we have in the bank.
 I would like to think that in Act Four the brothers of the rich man notice what he never did, notice the kinfolk of Lazarus covered with cardboard, sleeping on city streets, without enough food, and with nowhere to call home. I would like to think that they start to lose sleep at night not over how to invest their latest dividends or where to go on their next vacation, but that there are so many nameless ones are eating their daily trash and sleeping under interstate overpasses at night. 
As I read this parable, it is not that the rich man did something wrong during his life on earth; the problem is that he did no-thing, nothing. I would like to think that Act Four is not finally about what the brothers of the rich man notice, but what you and I notice. Do we notice the millions in our land of plenty who die from hunger and malnutrition every year? Do we notice people of color who fear for their lives because they are not known by name but by category? Do we notice all who die because of limited health care and almost no mental health care in our land or those who die from chemicals we dump into rivers and belch into the air or who die because they are sent back to their deaths as refugees and immigrants, legal and illegal? I would like to think that the first step toward doing some-thing is for you and I to notice. 
After being tutored by wise, compassionate mentors in Atlanta, I started to notice, never enough, but I noticed. The folks sleeping in our Shelter and camped outside the building were no longer “the homeless” to me; they were Lucas and Larry, Mike and Teresa. They were children of God, loved by God as much as I am or you are. They had stories to tell that started to close the great chasm of not noticing and they would no longer let me excuse living on streets as an unfortunate reality. In time, they taught me to notice. As a result, they made my life richer than it had ever been before.

 A big part of me wishes that this parable were easy to pin down, that it were only a simple story about the rich and the poor and life yet to come, and not about how you and I are to live this life right now. A better part of me knows that this parable is all about seeing, about noticing, and when we do, Act Four begins and so does new life this side of the grave, a life worth living every single minute.   

Monday, September 12, 2016

Sing Me to Heaven

Sing Me To Heaven
                                    Text: Revelation 7:9-17
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 9-11-2016

Toward the end of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, Vladimir asks Pozzo: “What do you do when you fall far from help?” Vladamir’s question fits aptly into the absurdity of our 21st century world. Years ago, we could simply “wish upon a star” or “talk, keep talk, keep talking happy talk,” but not now, not in a day when refugees are the fastest growing population worldwide, when the pipeline of young African American males to private prisons grows every day, when North Korea is testing nuclear weapons, when well-dressed looters prey on the poor on Wall Street. What do we do when we fall far from help?
          Fifteen years ago today was the hardest single day of my ministry. I stood outside my office at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, near the Pentagon, as a plane flew overhead. Nothing new. Planes flew over our church more often than the train runs outside Cove, since our church was in the flight pattern of National Airport.
This was to be no ordinary day, rather an extraordinary day, extraordinarily horrific. In a matter of minutes, first in New York and then in D.C., chaos ensued and engulfed our nation and world. Fifteen years later, violence still runs loose like a wild beast. We struck back with vengeance in Afghanistan and Iraq, but chaos still looms large in those countries and regions. We invented a department of Homeland Security but most of us feel anything but secure. There is an underlying sense of malaise in the air, an ominous fear that haunts many of us as we wonder, “What’s next?”
I still enjoy listening to Rogers and Hammerstein’s old song of the cock-eyed optimist inviting us to “talk, keep talk, keep talking happy talk,” but it is Vladamir’s question that haunts me today:  “What do you do when you fall far from help?”  
Ask Vladamir’s question and you enter the world of Revelation. It is a world where normal assurances no longer work, where evil is not an occasional visitor, but landed gentry; where simple religious formulas no longer produce the desired results; where we pray fervently but heaven is silent; where we are faithful to God and compassionate to our neighbor and yet find ourselves accosted and accused, beaten and jailed. It is a world where madness is the norm and you wonder if God has taken the last train for the coast.
          D.H. Lawrence described the book of Revelation as detestable and our theological ancestor, John Calvin, wrote a commentary on every book in the New Testament, except Revelation. In his superb commentary on this bizarre book, Mitchell Reddish asks: “Would we not be better off distancing ourselves from this book that has been the fertile field for fundamentalist soothsayers, that helped fuel the fires at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, and that to some people seems more of an embarrassment than a work to be taken seriously?” (p. 2). 
          Reddish asks what many Christians practice, simply by not reading this book. And, while the temptation is great to lop off the end of the New Testament, ultimately, we do so at too high a price. For Revelation speaks powerfully and evocatively to Christians like us in the 21st century, Christians living in a world gone awry, and to a church embattled from outside and within. Its language is strange and its images turn common sense on its head, but its promise is too much to set aside; it is the promise for which Christians and the church thirst when flood waters rise and life’s well is bone dry. 
          Logically, Chapter Seven should be the final chapter of Revelation. The last of the seven seals is broken and the end of the world should occur. Instead, Chapter Seven is a strange interlude, a holy pause with parallel scenes happening on earth and in heaven. On earth, angels are stationed at the four corners of the flat globe to hold back the violent wind of God, while in heaven, a multitude of too many to count saints hold a public concert. A slain Lamb rather than a marauding Lion sits upon the throne of God and saints in dazzling clothes not stained red but made white with blood sing a hallelujah chorus.

Welcome to John’s world, a world dancing with apocalyptic, not-to-be-taken literally, images. Unfortunately, many people read this bizarre book as a literal manual of the end time while others laugh out loud at such religious nonsense and dismiss it as a cookbook for kooks. Both groups miss the mark for what this revelation is all about and therefore distort the power of its message.
          In the second scene in Chapter Seven, the scene set in heaven, a multitude of martyrs cannot stop singing songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. In John’s vision, these choristers are the Christians, the unlikely saints, who kept believing when they had fallen “far from help,” who kept hoping when hope seemed foolish at best amid Roman tyranny, who kept witnessing to the non-violent love of God in Christ when Rome flexed its military muscles, and who kept giving of themselves in the name of the One who gave himself in love for the world. They died while the world laughed at their feeble witness. They died and yet now they sing in glorious praise around the throne of God.
Revelation assaults the senses with fantastic images that try to capture the inexplicable – how God redeems suffering, even the suffering death of Jesus. Revelation dares to ask Christians and a church to put their life’s trust in God, to believe in the good purposes of God, and to love God even in the midst, especially in the midst of terror and suffering, sin and storm. 
Believing in the redemptive, transforming power of God in Christ is always hard. It is much easier, though, when life is calm, when we are comfortable and can somehow equate our prosperity with God’s reward for our sincere faith. Believing is easier when we carry the biggest stick and equate our political and military prowess with God’s divine intention for our country. Believing is much easier when God provides a magic, protective bubble around us to deliver us from the paths of drunk drivers, from the guided missiles of cancer cells, from the horrors of suicide bombers, and from horrific storms that mock our preparedness.
          Revelation puts the church on notice that we are called by God to hone our faith in troubled times, not to escape suffering, not to dodge pain at all costs with one more pill or one more drink, but to suffer with those who would otherwise suffer alone, to pray for and bear witness to the love of God in Christ even to family and neighbors and co-workers for whom the notion of divine love is nothing more than intellectual pablum, to bind the wounds of those victimized by our warring ways, to raise our voices to those in positions to make peace, to get involved in the lives of those who are struggling the most, to gather here Sunday after Sunday to lift our voices in praise while the majority of people around us scratch their collective heads and wonder why we do.
          What do you and I do when we fall far from help? That is Beckett’s question. It is not ours, not in this century, not ever. For, the promise of Revelation is not that storms will hit elsewhere; it is instead the promise that for those who follow the slain Lamb, the one we know as Jesus, they will sing with the chorus of heavenly angels despite chaos and catastrophe, even in the midst of chaos and catastrophe, and will never be far from help, God’s help. It is the promise that God gives us voices to sing our laments and to sing our praises even to the doorstep of heaven, from this moment and in every moment to come.
So, followers of the Lamb, let us sing.


Monday, September 5, 2016

The Welcome Table

The Welcome Table
Text: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 9-4-2016)

Anne Lamott begins one of her essays with this statement: “On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.”[1] When I first read Anne’s statement, I was struck by the image of eating myself to death. As someone who loves to eat but cannot eat sugar, I have a vivid image of what it would look like to eat myself to death. It would involve a trip to dessert heaven in Little Italy in NYC., where I would consume lots of pie, chocolate, coconut, cherry, apple, along with carrot cakes and German Chocolate cakes, extra-large milkshakes of numerous flavors, custards, puddings, along with a wide variety of exotic desserts found only in this tiny pastry shop.
“I decided all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne, of course, was using her unique, often irreverent, humor to talk about something that is anything but funny. What do we do when despair creeps into our bones or grief just will not go home? What do we do when we are absolutely certain that we are alone in this world, surrounded by people who wish we were not here or who never notice we are? What do we do when the only thing that is clear is that all life is hopeless?
I have no idea what led the psalmist to compose Psalm 139, but I am as thankful for this psalm as any in the Psalter. To anyone who has ever battled or is battling despair and trying to climb out of the deep well of grief, who is convinced that no one understands them, no one knows them, no one cares if they live or they die, the psalmist sings: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.”
As a child and a teen, I found this psalm creepy. It felt like God was being portrayed as the head of some secret wiretapping organization and I ended up feeling guilty whenever my thoughts strayed toward girls or skipping school, and well the list goes one.
As an adult, I find few psalms more comforting. Eat enough of this psalm and it is the best antidote to the toxicity of despair and the soul-numbing power of grief. It is a way out and a way forward for any of us who decide, along with Anne, that that all of life is hopeless.
This table is set for all of us, but in particular, it is set to lead to just the opposite conclusion than the one that Anne reached on her forty-ninth birthday. This table is set for all who want to eat themselves to life; who want to taste the promise of the psalmist, “O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and rise up.”  

This table cannot be reserved for select, exclusive parties. It will never be my table or yours or Cove’s. At this table, the risen Christ is host, a host who invites us to meet the God who searches out our paths and is acquainted with all our ways, whether we were raised Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, one of the countless denominations of Protestant, or none of the above. At this table, we meet the God who searches us out, knows us by name, and will not leave us to choke on the death-dealing fare of despair or the life diminishing grub of grief.
Years ago I worked in migrant ministry for the Virginia Council of Churches on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. When I went to the fields, I would often hear these day laborers singing a song that was new to me at the time. Even though picking vegetables all day, these migrants were chronically hungry because they had little to live on and they were systematically cheated of their limited funds by unscrupulous crew chiefs. Even when they could scrape together enough change to walk across the street and buy a soda at the local Stuckey’s, they encountered a handwritten sign prominently posted in the window:  “Migrants Not Welcome.”
The song that these migrant workers taught me in the fields was actually a favorite freedom song of the Civil Rights Movement. It sings: “We’re gonna sit at the Welcome Table. We’re gonna sit at the Welcome Table one of these days, Hallelujah! No more hunger ‘round that table . . . all God’s children ‘round that Table. We’re gonna sit at the Welcome Table one of these days.”

Though denied welcome everywhere from Woolworth’s to the voting booth,
these migrants sang about a table that no one could deny them welcome, because it
belongs to the Lord of life who welcomes and does not deny access. You and I are
about to sit at that Welcome Table.
This is the Welcome Table where our host invites us to eat ourselves to life.
This table has no place set for despair and is just the right meal to assuage our grief. It
is the table where the psalmist’s song is always playing:  “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness
shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark
to you; the night is as bright as day, for darkness is as light to you.” At this Welcome
Table, we taste the truth of the psalmist’s song that it simply is never true that life is
hopeless, even when we find ourselves in the darkest and most miry place.
None of the Gospel writers say, but I can imagine that when Jesus sat down at
the original Welcome Table on that darkest of all nights, when betrayal was guised as
a kiss, justice sprinted out of the city, and the sky went black, that he sang the
psalmist’s song. And, later, when he kneeled in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray
and walked the long path to Golgotha, he kept singing that song.
At this Welcome Table, we meet a God who not only searches us out, but who searches out every despairing soul on earth, even those like Judas, who gave birth to despair. At this table, by God’s plentiful grace, you and I eat ourselves to life, so that we can become the life-giving people of God’s justice and mercy and love in a world too often choking on despair.
At this Welcome Table, we feast on the promise that our God does not abandon us, even when we are feeling the most abandoned. We eat the psalmist’s promise: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
 So, come to this Welcome Table singing the psalmist’s song. And, if you happen to be in a place where you simply cannot sing, come anyway; we will sing for you.
Come to the Welcome Table and eat yourself to life!

[1] Anne Lamott, “Ham of god,” Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (NY: Riverhead Books, 2005) 4.

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.”


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!