Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Always and Never

“Always and Never”
Text: Luke 18:1-8
          (Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 10-16-2016)

In the uncharted terrain of God’s reign, Jesus says, “always pray and never lose heart.” Few words of Jesus make me squirm more. I find it hard enough praying daily, much less praying always – and I am in the praying business!
When my son, Josh, was in first grade, he was asked about his parents’ vocations. When asked about mine, Josh responded, “My dad goes to meetings.” How true. If Jesus had said, “Always go to meetings – Session meetings, committee meetings, Presbytery meetings, civic meetings, Seminary board meetings,” well, I’d already have at least one foot well planted within God’s reign. Jesus said none of those things. He said, “Always pray.” 

I once spent a silent weekend at a Trappist monastery. The monks spent a good part of the day baking bread for commercial sale. They also read and walked and reflected. And, Lord God, did they pray. They prayed in the early morning, at noon, at midday, at meals, at dusk and at midnight, but even there they did not “pray always.”  
Jesus only makes matters worse when he insists that we “never lose heart.”  How can you and I live in this world and “never lose heart?” How can we listen to the current election rhetorical race to the gutter and never lose heart? How can we pass mentally wounded veterans walking homeless on our city streets and never lose heart? How can we witness the massive devastation and loss of human life in Haiti and along the U.S. Coast after Hurricane Matthew and never lose heart? How can we watch too many innocent inmates executed by our states and never lose heart? How can see the deadly arrow of cancer strike friends and family and never lose heart? Always pray. Never lose heart. Who are you kidding, Jesus?
To make matters worse, Jesus follows this confounding counsel with a story of a widow and a judge.  Unlike a majority of widows in modern times, widows in those days were rarely old, fragile, or frail. With a short life span for males, women were often widowed at a young age, still capable and vigorous, but also vulnerable, frequently ignored and exploited, an easy prey.
Hebrew tradition insists on protection of widows. Deuteronomy says that God executes justice for orphans and widows (10:17-18). Old Testament law includes provisions for the community’s care of widows (Ex. 22:22-24; Deut. 14:28-29; 24:17-22) and the Psalms describe God as One who “upholds the widow” and “maintains the widow’s boundaries” (Psalm 146:9). In reality, though, a widow in those days had little hope for anything more than rugged survival. 
Hebrew tradition insists of behavior beyond reproach of judges. King Jehoshaphat gives these instructions to all judges, “Consider what you do, for you judge not for humanity but for the Lord; the Lord is with you in giving judgment. . . . take heed what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking bribes” (2 Chron. 19:5-6). 

In practice, though, in Jesus’ day, widows were powerless and judges were too often corrupt. In this parable, Jesus tells of a certain widow who refuses to accept the lay of the land. She demands justice from the judge and keeps coming at him day after day, relentless in her cause. She is the kind of person that you avoid when you walk down the street, someone whose phone call you try to miss, or whose email you never return. She has no power other than the power of persistence, so persist she does.
Jesus then tells us of a certain judge who evidently had never read Jehoshaphat’s instructions. You can hear the crowd chuckle as Jesus gives us a peek inside the judge’s head as he muses, “I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something. I’ll give her what she wants and be done with her” (translation by Peterson and Charles).
At this point in the parable, the crowd around Jesus must have roared with laughter, at the very idea of a powerful judge who is beaten to the punch by a powerless, persevering widow. What a comic tale. “Tell us another one, Jesus.”      
 In this parable, Jesus does not reduce prayer to rare moments when we collect our thoughts, close our eyes, bow our heads, and try to put together some coherent words to say to God before we fall asleep. Prayer according to this parable is the single-minded focus of the widow who persists in demanding justice from the judge, no matter how hopeless her situation. Prayer is a way of life more than a particular daily activity.

Bishop Craig Anderson recalls a conversation with Father Bear’s Heart, chief of the Lakota people. Anderson lamented the deplorable conditions that the Lakota Indians have to endure. The Chief then offered him a different view of their world.  “Bishop, every year different church groups from around the country come here to save the Indian people. These groups come for a week or two . . . and work very hard repairing our churches, teaching our children, setting up programs and trying to help.  Then they leave frustrated because their needs to succeed have not been met. They want immediate results, change now!
“They seem to have the answers but never ask the questions. It is sad because if they did, they would discover something important about us as Lakota people and even more about themselves. One of the four Lakota virtues is perseverance.  Perseverance is the ability to endure, to suffer as a people without ever giving up hope.  We Lakota think of it as a Christian virtue and see it in our Kola (brother) Jesus. He suffered, endured, and persevered, even on the cross. He did not desert his people or God, his father. Our people have suffered and persevered. We will not desert our family or “Wakan Tanka” (our God). If they (the visitors) would minister to us, they should minister with us by enduring and persevering rather than treating us as a problem to be solved or a condition to be fixed. Perseverance . . . helps us to cope and to hope. Bishop, we have a deep faith; we persevere” (Craig Anderson, Lectionary Homiletics, Oct. 1998, pp. 21-22).

The widow in this parable keeps one singular cause at the center of her life.  Likewise, suggests Jesus, prayer keeps God at the center of our lives no matter what the time or circumstance of our lives. Prayer keeps God at the center of our being when we are cooking breakfast or working on a legal brief, finishing a term paper or writing a novel, when we are picking vegetables or chasing after our children. For Jesus, prayer is a way of living that keeps our lives directed toward God and God’s will and God’s love. 
When Huck Finn heard about prayer he put an empty shoebox under his bed. He prayed for God to fill it by morning, and when the box remained empty, he said that was it between him and prayer. Huck loses heart when God does not act like the tooth fairy. How can you and I possibly pray always and never lose heart when daily we see the black hole of injustice expanding, the creation treated as a human dump, and the disparity between rich and poor growing wider than the Mississippi? Because, says Jesus, if a worthless no-count judge will finally listen to the relentless cries of a powerless widow, how much more will our good and just and merciful God listen to our faithful prayers?        
Over fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. It looked as though the boycott would fail. King had to face an evening crowd in church and with something less than conviction he preached, “Tonight we must believe that a way will be made out of no way.” He then reflects, “I could feel the cold breeze of pessimism pass over the audience. The night was darker than a thousand midnights. The light of hope was about to fade and the lamp of faith to flicker. . . . it became obvious that Judge Carter would rule in favor of the city.
“At noon . . . I noticed an unusual commotion in the courtroom. A reporter said . . . `read this release’. In anxiety and hope, I read these words: `The United States Supreme Court today unanimously ruled bus segregation unconstitutional in Montgomery, Alabama’. My heart throbbed with an inexpressible joy. The darkest hour of our struggle had become the first hour of victory. . . .
“The dawn will come. Disappointment, sorrow, and despair are born at midnight, but morning follows.` Weeping may endure for a night’, says the Psalmist, `but joy cometh in the morning’. This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.”
Not many years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would bend over a Memphis balcony robbed of his life far too early. Long before Memphis he would endure death threats, bombs on his home, wiretaps of his conversations, and racial slurs by the thousands, but he persevered. How? Because of a God-given faith that stirred him to pray always and finally never to lose heart. 

Always pray. Never lose heart. Always pray. Never lose heart. Always pray.  Never lose heart. An impossible conundrum leaving us lost and confused or a divine recipe for the only life that is finally worth living?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A Whole New Life

A Whole New Life
Text: Luke 17:11-19
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 10-9-2016)

          As a child, my grandmother lived in a one bedroom studio, adjoined to our house by a breezeway. I would walk into her kitchen and smell the sweet aroma of apples simmering on the stove and hear the crackle of chicken frying in a cast iron skillet. Those are delicious memories, to be sure.
          On a less pleasant note, my grandmother was a real stickler for good manners. These included writing a thank-you note for any and every gift my brother and I ever received. There are few more tortuous tasks for a ten-year-old who wants to go outside and play baseball than having to sit down in his grandmother’s living room and compose a thank-you note.  
Some read the story of the healing of the ten lepers as the definitive biblical justification for writing thank-you notes. A nice, Southern reading of the story tells of ten lepers whom Jesus healed, only one of whom had the decency to write a thank-you note and hand deliver it, while the other nine get so caught up in the remarkable moment of their healing that they temporarily forget their manners. That might be a fair reading of this story if the story stopped a few verses before it does.
The keys to this story are not just paying attention to the last verses but also to the first ones. Luke makes a point of telling us where Jesus is. He is on his way to Jerusalem, the holy city of the people of God, but his GPS has dangerously malfunctioned. Luke says that Jesus is traveling through the borderlands of Jewish and Samaritan territory, in other words, Jesus is traveling through a bad part of town. No Jew of good repute travels here, visits here, or lives here. Not only a location full of filthy Samaritans, wanna-be Jews according to those who live in Jerusalem; it is where filthy lepers live in a refugee camp. “Someone fix the GPS and get us out of here now,” should be what Jesus tells his followers.  
Jesus makes no such detour. He does not do what many of us do when someone asks us for some money when we are walking along the mall in Charlottesville; we pretend not to hear their requests or we simply cast our eyes in another direction. Jesus sees the lepers, hears the lepers, and tells these ten shouting souls to go where they should not go – to go and visit the priests, even though Jewish laws tells them that they are ritually unclean and have no business there. All ten obey Jesus, at least initially, and on their way to visit the priests, all ten are healed.
This would be a great way to end the story. If ended here, faith in Jesus would lead to being healed of the most dreadful disease. Luke, though, does not end the story here. Faith does involve obedience says Jesus but it involves far more than that. All ten lepers are obedient, all ten believe that Jesus has the capacity to heal their broken bodies and all ten trust Jesus when he tells them to go see the priests and all ten are healed on the way.
I say “all ten,” but listen again. Only nine lepers fully obey Jesus. One leper finally does not. He does not go to see the priest as clearly instructed by Jesus; he turns back, falls at the feet of Jesus, and sings the Doxology, sings praise to God, with thanksgiving in every breath.
And, oh, by the way, says Luke, this healed leper who turns back in thanks to God is a Samaritan. He is the second Good Samaritan we meet in Luke. To add insult to injury, Jesus says to the healed, thankful, good, Samaritan leper, “Your faith has saved you.” If there could be anything more offensive than the idea of a “good” Samaritan, it had to be the notion of a “saved” Samaritan.
Another way to translate the last words of Jesus to the Samaritan leper is:  “Your faith has made you whole.” Remember, all ten lepers go, at least initially, as Jesus commands. All ten lepers are healed. Only one, though, is made whole. All his life, the Samaritan leper has been isolated not only by his gruesome disease, but by his religious and ethnic identity. He has never had to wonder what people thought of him and even after being cured of his leprosy, he never will. He has been doubly cursed all his life: a leper and a Samaritan.
When this “good Samaritan” runs back to Jesus, falls on his face, and shouts “Alleluia,” he knows better than most that faith and gratitude live in the same house. The Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, once said, “What else can we say to what God gives us but stammer praise?” (Church Dogmatics, III/3, p. 564.) Anne Lamott says her two favorite prayers are, in the morning, “Help me. Help me. Help me,” and at bedtime, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Faith and gratitude are housemates to be sure. Grace and gratitude are close kin. Granny, you were right!
Look again at this story. It surely links grace and gratitude, but it dares to take us to a deeper place. In a marvelous reading of this story, Debie Thomas writes, “What does [the Samaritan leper’s] otherness enable him to see that his nine companions do not? He sees that his identity—his truest place of belonging – lies at Jesus’ feet. He sees that Jesus’ arms are wide enough to embrace all of who he is – leper, foreigner, exile. Ten lepers dutifully stand at a distance and call Jesus ‘Master’. One draws close, dares intimacy, and finds his lasting home, clinging to Jesus for a better and more permanent citizenship” (Christian Century, Sept. 28, 2016, p. 20).
What do you suppose happens on Day 2, when the healed, thankful, joyful, no-longer-a leper Samaritan gets up off the floor, heads home, and awakens to a new day? From the outside, little has changed. He is still a hated Samaritan. Like the other nine, he has been cured of his leprosy, but he has not been cured of his “Samaritanism.” Yes, he is healed, but you know how suspicious people are about germs and sickness. Surely some wonder if this is just a temporary healing and they had better keep their distance from him. So, the next day, he is still the one always on the outside looking in.
Tell that to the oh-so thankful, no-longer-a-leper Samaritan. Tell that to the one who disobeys Jesus, who stops in his tracks on his way to the priests and return to Jesus to sing the Doxology. He wakes the next day to know the power of God in Jesus, to know that even if he will never belong in the Jerusalem temple or be accepted in “healed,” polite society, he belongs to God, he is a beloved child of God no matter what he looks like, no matter where he lives, no matter what label people put on him before they ever know him.
The oh-so thankful, no-longer-a-leper Samaritan is found wherever exclusion and solation rule, where “not welcome here” signs are posted in concrete. He is found not heading to church, but standing in solidarity in the bad side of town with all who are the cast-offs in the world. He is not deterred by other’s hatefulness. He is the one teaching praise songs to people who have been told that their sexuality is distorted or are wearing the wrong shade of skin, those who weigh too much or who learn in ways not considered “normal,” and sadly, have sometimes been told these things by the church. He is the one who knows that the wideness of God’s mercy is far more expansive than you and I can begin to imagine, much less to practice.
Flat on his face, with his mouth wide open, the story ends with a disobedient, oh-so-thankful, no-longer-a-leper Samaritan being blessed by Jesus and getting up to lead a whole new life. I wish I knew his name. I wish I could tell him how his story inspires me. I wish I could also move beyond all the broken places within me and be blessed by Jesus with a whole new life.
If I read this story right, maybe a whole new life awaits anyone daring enough to follow the disobedient, thankful, no-longer-a leper Samaritan back to the feet of Jesus, back to the God who makes all things, makes all people, makes every last one of us new.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Time to Sing

A Time to Sing
Text: Psalm 137
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 10-2-2016)

           Sitting on the banks of a Babylonian river, some six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, a despondent refugee from Jerusalem opined, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?”
I have never lived as a hostage in an alien land, but I have felt like one. A few weeks ago, I spoke about living just across the Potomac on 9/11. The days following 9/11 made the ancient words of the Psalmist feel current. There was an eerie silence in the skies. Our house was on the flight pattern of Washington National, but no planes were flying. I stepped into a D.C. restaurant and got far better service than any tip the waiter might reasonably expect, because D.C. was largely a ghost town.        
          Those were some of the obvious changes in my known world. The most powerful changes in this new, alien land were not nearly so visible. Each day brought an awareness of losses within me. I missed feeling immune from the rest of the world’s madness. I missed my relative sense of calm and hated that I would jump every time I heard a loud thud. I grew tired of having sadness stalk me like an unavoidable shadow.
 I wanted to board a plane again and not look around at other passengers in my own private version of racial profiling. I wanted the desire for vengeance to be someone else’s spiritual disease. As a person of faith, I missed the admittedly misguided and unexamined notion that God watches specially over America and would never allow terrorism, at least, large scale terrorism, to happen here. As the national economy crumbled, I counseled with employers forced to lay off valued employees and skilled workers who could not find work. I was frustrated that our congregation’s substantial emergency assistance fund could not begin to meet the new demands upon it. Amid the rumblings of war and the rhetoric of vengeance, I wondered whatever happened to the God who promises peace that passes all understanding.
          Always a keen observer of life, the British classicist and theologian, C.S. Lewis observed his own travels through grief. After he lost his late-in-life bride, Lewis wrote down his daily thoughts in his book, A Grief Observed. He asks, “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms [of grief]. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing God, so happy that you are tempted to feel God’s claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to God with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms. 
          “But go to God when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. . . Why is God so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, pp. 4-5; inclusive language my own).
          Did you notice what was missing as we just sang the haunting Latvian hymn, By the Babylonian Rivers? The hymn captures a longing for home, nostalgia for a treasured past, weariness with life lived in an alien land, but it stops before the Psalmist does. It leaves the last verses on the cutting room floor.
The last verses of Psalm 137 are an uncensored cry for the most brutal revenge, “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” 
          For years, preachers, church musicians, and lectionaries have carefully excised these last treacherous verses of the Psalm. It is a natural mistake, but ultimately, a misguided one. I am not commending the Psalmist for wishing the death of his most vulnerable foes and in the most horrendous of ways. I am not excusing his rage as justified.
What I am commending is the wisdom of the Hebrew and then Christian communities that insisted that this Psalm, in its entirety, needs to be a part of our Scripture, because it reflects an essential part of who we are. When hurt, we want others to hurt. When maligned, we want to malign in return. When devastated, we will not rest until others are devastated as well.

This Psalm knows what church censors are too embarrassed to admit. It knows that sometimes we godly folk think ungodly thoughts and say ungodly things, that the hearts of righteous people can dry up like a prune in the face of evil and that if God will not get even, we will. 
“How can we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?” I heard that question asked a thousand different ways in the aftermath of 9/11. How can we open our lungs wide and sing when grief has taken our breath away? What words of praise do we have to sing to God when God has been so conspicuously absent, noticeably silent, despite our most fervent pleas? “How can we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?” The clear answer that resounded in most of us in those dark days that followed 9/11 was “We can’t.” So we sat beside the banks of the Potomac and the Hudson and we wept and we shouted our pain to the heavens.         
          Of all the things I missed most after 9/11, the greatest of them all was the urge to sing, sing aloud, to sing praise to God who reigns above, the God of all creation. I was terrified of the spreading cancer of hatred that threatened to consume me and our country. I had absolutely no desire to sing.
Sitting on the same banks of that Babylonian river, another hostage refused to “hang up his lyre.” Recognizing that his view of God had been too provincial before the destruction of Jerusalem, too small, too nation-centered, and trusting that God wills people and nations from grief into joy, from despair into hope, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. Sing to the LORD a new song; sing the LORD’s praise from the end of the earth! Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants. Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits; let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy, let them shout from the tops of the mountains.”
          After a few weeks consumed by the darkness of silence after 9/11, I could sit at the river’s edge no longer. I had to sing again. I had wept enough tears. I had to sing again. I had been choked with anger long enough. I had to sing again. I had questioned the presence and purpose of God long enough. I had to sing again. I tried, but my voice was too frail, too broken, and my faith too fragile. I needed the faith of other believers to sing and they needed mine.
          So, after living through this national nightmare for almost a month, I said to all who were ready to move beyond the river’s edge and to re-string damaged instruments, “Let us sing.” Let us sing praise to God who raises heroines and heroes among ordinary folk, who prompts poets to write and musicians to compose, artists to paint and architects to re-build. Let us sing praise to God who prods us to ask ourselves what is really important about life, to stop chasing that which intoxicates us, only to leave us empty and shallow. Let us sing praise to God who reaches down within us and plants seeds of peace where hatred festers, a passion for justice where vengeance lingers, a vision of forgiveness and reconciliation where retaliation burns, a new song where old words simply no longer make sense.
Easter morning did not erase the haunting laments of Maundy Thursday or the horror of Good Friday; it only made the Easter song that much sweeter and lyrical and lovely. Easter morning taught Christians to sing even in the dark, even at the river’s edge.
So, as we come to the table today with Christians across the world, many who are now living an alien existence, as we pray our multi-language prayer to the God who reigns over God’s beloved world, I say, “Sing.” Sing until we drown out the despair that seeds its cancer within us. Sing until we blanket the earth with a chorus of contagious compassion. Sing until we defy anyone to sow terror in the fields of God’s peacemaking people. Sing until we refuse to raise the offspring of violence. Sing until the sour lyrics of greed are translated into the sweet poetry of grace and gratitude.
          The old preacher in Ecclesiastes was absolutely right, “There is a time to mourn.” There is a time to hang up our lyres and weep. But the old preacher did not stop there. He also said, “There is a time to sing.” Yes, there is a time to mourn and some must do so even today, but for all who are able and who have a voice to lift up someone who simply cannot, it is time to sing. Lord God Almighty, it is time to sing.

          [choir sings the 16th Lutheran Chorale, “Shall I praise my God not singing?” set to music by Alice Parker]

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.