Sunday, May 21, 2017

No Orphans Here

No Orphans Here
Text:  John 14:15-21
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, on 5-21-2017)

          Do you love Jesus? 
Do you love Jesus?
Do you love Jesus?
Allow me time here to apologize to my Seminary professors who taught me never to begin a sermon with a question. Let me also apologize to you, members and guests who are worshiping in this historic sanctuary this morning. I know it is not polite for well-educated, urbane, sophisticated people to be asked such a simple question. 
And, yes, I know it is really not such a simple question. You and I could spend months, years, debating whether we love Jesus and how to know when you love Jesus the way we are supposed to love him. Half the time we are not even sure whether or how we love the people living in the same house with us. How can we be sure that we love Jesus? So, with all these apologies and qualifiers in place, I will ask you again: Do you love Jesus?
          The fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is a winding trail circling around the question that I just asked you multiple times. John does not wait for an answer. He both asks and then answers what it means for anyone to love Jesus.
Jesus tells his road companions that his time with them on this good earth is almost over and then says, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” Jesus does not command warm feelings for him. Feelings are beyond even Jesus’ ability to command, but the love that John writes about in his Gospel, the love Jesus asks of us for him and for the world is not about feelings; it is about concentrated wills, willing the best of God’s gracious purpose for friend and also foe.
           To his credit, Jesus left his friends with more than a question and more than a farewell announcement and command. He left them with a farewell promise. Before panic could set in, Jesus promised that though leaving them, he would not abandon them. He promised to send them a Paraclete, a Comforter, an Advocate, a Helper. However we translate the Greek term, Jesus says to his flawed but beloved followers, “There will be no orphans here.”
Jesus promises his living abiding presence to his best friends. His promised will stir them to love the creation Jesus loved, to love the people Jesus loved, to love until there is no room left for anything else but love, even in the darkness.  
I am amazed at how many Christians who claim to love Jesus and yet consider his command to love as optional equipment for the Christian life, to be exercised when convenient. They excuse their hatred for people and nations as righteously provoked by hateful people or hateful countries or hateful terrorists. They excuse their greed as sanctioned by Jesus who wants the faithful to have more than anyone else, as if Jesus would sanction that another suffer in order to sate our greed. They suggest that loving Jesus means minding our spiritual p’s and q’s, acting as if there is only one way to think about God, forgetting that we always have more to learn about God than what we now know.  
          The late Roman Catholic priest and writer, Henri Nouwen tells the story of a young fugitive trying to hide himself from the enemy in a small village.  “The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn.
          “The people went to the minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words, ‘It is better that one man dies than the whole people be lost’.
          “Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden. And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room.
          “That night an angel came to him and asked, ‘What have you done?’ He said, ‘I handed over the fugitive to the enemy’. Then the angel said: ‘But don’t you know that you handed over the Messiah’? ‘How could I know’? the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said:  ‘If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known’.”
          If you and I love Jesus, we will read our Bibles to learn the story of the faith that names us and claims us. We will gather to worship here Sunday after Sunday because you and I were wired to give praise. We will give generously to the ministry of the church because we know that all that we have and all that we are is on sacred loan from God. We will center our lives in prayer because we need to hear a voice of clarity above the din of madness.
But if you and I are to love Jesus in the way that Jesus asks for us to love him then we will do far more. We will look into the eyes of those that our world leaves orphaned. When we do, we will discover something new about them and something new about us.
          Having grown up in solid white suburbia, I never understood why so many people live in such substandard conditions in the U.S. Then, years ago, I started hanging out with Habitat for Humanity and meeting those that our society has orphaned to substandard housing or no housing at all. I soon found out that no person likes to live in a house that leaks or has no insulation or has holes in the floor large enough to eat a cat or welcome a rat.
          When I looked in the eyes of those orphans sweating with us to build their Habitat House, I knew that I could not love Jesus and bask in my isolated spiritual haven content to let decent and affordable housing be a worry for someone else.
When I spent my first night in a shelter for those without a home, I knew that I could not love Jesus and be content that in this land of rich and plenty that grown men, women and children, each one created in the image of God, each one our brothers and sisters in Christ, have no other shelter than the one offered on gym floors and church fellowship halls. Just as Jesus promises not to leave his followers orphaned, so you and I are commanded to pray and worship and work for the day when there are no orphans here. 
In one of her essays, the somewhat mouthy, Presbyterian elder, former anti-church, now Presbyterian elder, Anne Lamott recounts going to the grocery store on her birthday, feeling the weight of the world’s need and hunger and our nation’s overwhelming affluence. She makes it through her shopping ordeal only to have the clerk tell her that she has won a ham. 
          The problem is that she does not like ham, has no need for ham, and in her fluster about this unwelcome gift she ends up crashing her ham-laden grocery cart into a slow-moving car in the parking lot. 
          “I started to apologize,” writes Anne, “when I noticed that the car was a rusty wreck, and that an old friend was at the wheel. We got sober together a long time ago, and each of us had a son at the same time.  . . .
          “She opened her window, ‘Hey’, I said, ‘How are you – it’s my birthday!’
          “’Happy Birthday’, she said, and started crying. She looked drained and pinched, and after a moment, she pointed to her gas gauge. ‘I don’t have money for gas, or food. I’ve never asked for help from a friend since I got sober, but I’m asking you to help me’.
          “’I’ve got money,’ I said.
          “’No, no, I just need gas,’ she said, ‘I’ve never asked anyone for a handout’.
          “’It’s not a handout,’ I told her. ‘It’s my birthday present.’ I thrust a bunch of money into her hand, everything I had. Then I reached into my shopping cart and held out the ham to her like a clown offering flowers. ‘Hey!’ I said, ‘Do you and your kids like ham?’ 
          “’We love it’, she said.  ‘We love it for every meal’. 
          “She put it in the seat beside her, firmly, lovingly, as if she were about to strap it in. And she cried some more” (Anne Lamott, Plan B:  Further Thoughts on Faith, pp. 10-11).
          Do you love Jesus? 
Then look in the eyes of those people sitting next to you in the pew this morning. Some are worried sick about money or their job or their health or their children or you name it. Look in the eyes of those you hit with grocery carts in parking lots or stumble into at a soccer game or stand next to in the grocery store, of those on the streets listening to music so loud that it makes your head swell. Look into their eyes. Listen to their stories. Do not try to dazzle them with your piety. Simply assure them that for the love of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, there are no orphans here. 
To love Jesus that way means that we will give away something that we have needed to give away in the first place. We may even give away a birthday ham to someone who actually wants it, to someone who actually needs it. No telling what loving Jesus might lead us to do. No telling what kind of company we might keep if we get serious about loving Jesus.
So, while you are still thinking through my opening question about loving Jesus, fast forward to the end of John’s Gospel. Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus asks this of Peter – this arrogant, impetuous, disappointing, denying, disciple. Three times he asks the same question of Peter and finally Peter says, “Enough already, you must know that I love you.” Jesus looks Peter in the eyes and says, “Then love others in just the way I have loved you.”
Now, fast forward with me to this morning and I will ask the same opening question for one last time:  Do you love Jesus? 

Wouldn’t you hate for this sermon to end with a question?    

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Text: Romans 8:18-27
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 5-14-2017)

The cover of the April 8, 1966 edition of Time magazine announced the death of God. From Time to Seminary campuses, as Vietnam dominated the nightly news and fire hoses blasted marchers in Selma, there was a relentless chorus that God is dead and that any hope to change a broken and decaying world rests with us. The movement drew its inspiration from the German philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche, who in the late 19th century pronounced, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” (The Gay Science, section 125).
Sometime and somehow, almost inexplicably, God has made a comeback in the 21st century. Current pollsters tell us that God is very much alive in the hearts of many Americans today, and now it is not so much God, but the church, that is dead. Therefore, the only job of those of us called as pastors, educators, church musicians, and ruling elders is to give the church a decent funeral.  
Sociologists love to describe the dying or dead church; they tell us how churches are closing at rapid rates and how a vast majority of people are staying home or doing anything else but worshiping God on Sundays, even in the Bible belt. Take a trip to most major cities in Europe and increasingly within the U.S. and you will find some of the best hotels and finest restaurants now situated in former church buildings. Why fly red banners and sing songs of the Spirit in a few weeks when we should be wearing black and singing songs of lament?
Now, it is true that there are some things that need to die in the church, from some of our arcane and mean theology to our frequent lock step with prejudice and racism in the name of Jesus to our repeated obsession with matters that matter little. It is not without a wealth of irony that I am preaching in a church this morning, when, in reality, we all have been told that the church is dead.
Before you and I are tempted to join the prevailing chorus of death, I would remind us that we are gathered here in the season of Easter. If Easter means something more than tasty chocolate bunnies and an annual dose of false hope for desperate preachers of booming crowds, it means that God has the last word when it comes to who and what is to be pronounced “dead” in the world. If the Pentecost story in Acts is clear about anything, it is clear that God brings to life some pretty dead or frightened communities.
 In Romans 8, Paul suggests that any death call for God or for the church of Jesus, God’s beloved child, is radically premature. Paul offers us, instead, a much more evocative image for our theology, a markedly female image, but one that many males have witnessed close up.   
It is the image of “labor pains” and Paul uses that image both for creation and for Christians. Paul tells the Romans that God is bringing something to birth in the Christian community and it will not come without excruciating consequence.
Lutheran pastor, Heidi Neumark, uses the Spanish term, Malabarriga to describe what Paul is saying in Romans 8. Paul says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” Heidi says, “In both pregnancies, I suffered a bad case of what the Puerto Rican mothers in the church call `malabarriga`, which translates as `evil belly`, and seems more to the point than the comparatively benign English equivalent.”
          At the time of her two pregnancies, Heidi was pastor of the Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the Bronx, a church that when she arrived looked like it was on its way to the grave. It was dying and had Heidi accepted what was apparent she would have pronounced the last rites and given the church a good funeral. 
          Instead, Heidi believed that the Transfiguration Lutheran Church was hardly dying, but instead, was suffering a wicked case of malabarriga. In her marvelous book, Breathing Space, Heidi tells the story of what God gave birth to in that congregation in the face of so much death and dying. Writing about morning sickness in her pregnancy and the new life awaiting the people of her church, Heidi writes, “The doctor happily assured me that my belly was not cursed at all. On the contrary, the prodigious hormone level was a healthy sign of strong new life taking hold. This ‘malabarriga’ was a sign of blessing. It would just take time to adjust to the changes. And so it was at Transfiguration” (Breathing Space, p. 13).

Heidi refused to see the church as dying. Neither do I. She refused to be a prophetess of doom. Nor will I. Arguably, the church of the 21st century is suffering from a fierce case of malabarriga , nonetheless, it is a new church that God is bringing to birth despite all the premature announcements of its death. Just look at some faces of new life that make my case. 
Look at the face of Pope Francis. Tell Francis that “the church is dead” and he will give you one of those impish smiles of someone who knows more than all the great prognosticators combined, who recognizes malabarriga when he sees it, and then kneels down to wash a Muslim’s feet on Holy Thursday. He gives daily witness to Christians of all stripes of the church that God is bringing to birth, often with a loud, birthing cry.
Look at the faces of the thousands of religious pilgrims who visit the tiny French town of Taize each year. People of all ages and colors and denominations kneel in prayer, in silence, and in song at Taize three times a day, every day of the year. They do not see prayer as the last ditch effort of Christians when all else has failed, but as the beginning of being quiet long enough to listen for the birth cries of the people of God. In the oftentimes, malabarriga type prayers of the Taize community, Christians align themselves with Paul’s profound words: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” These prayers propel the pilgrims in Taize and pilgrims in any pew to  go into the world God so loves, as agents of God’s grace and mercy, advocacy and justice.
Look at the faces of students and faculty at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. These are the courageous souls for whom the prevailing narrative, “the church is dead” has been drilled into their heads, but even so, who choose to believe otherwise, choose to believe that our Easter God is doing something new, something extraordinary, choose to believe that the Pentecost Spirit of God is busy bringing new life to the church. Students are at Union are not being trained as hospice chaplains for a church on life-support, but as labor and delivery nurses for a church God is bringing to birth.
I wish everyone here could look at one face of a person who changed my life. Her name was Katie Bashor and she and her husband, Mark, were the moving forces behind the Night Shelter connected with the church I served in Atlanta. The Apostle Paul did not have any convincing to do with respect to Katie. She knew all about malabarriga and the church God is birthing in the world. Katie knew that God does not intend for God’s creatures to have no safe shelter and to be subject to the whims of the weather and victims of political leaders who have no use for the poor. She also knew that until God’s great birthing project is complete that she was going to exercise hospitality and would not be a part of any church that decided that for financial, security, or convenience sake there is no room in the inn.
I wish I could also transport you to the small island of La Gonave off the main island of Haiti. This time last year, my nephew Sean and I were there to assist in dedicating a new church in the mountain village of Trou Jacques. Ask Monsieur Bellegarde, the lay leader of the church there, if the church is dead, and he will give you a hearty laugh and point to the new church building filled to overflowing with children and youth and adults of every age and he would say, “The church is dead? A first world fantasy.”
          What faces do you see that demonstrate the church’s malabarriga, pictures of the church God is bringing to birth? What faces have changed the prevailing moribund narrative for you that “the church is dead”? What faces would you paint on the front door of Cove that gives powerful witness of the Risen Christ and the Moving Spirit pushing beyond all the current harbingers of hate and prognosticators of death to usher in a reign of justice and peace that will not decay with time?
          “God is dead.” “The church is dead.” Paul has no patience with such theological nonsense and if we pay attention to the faces of life all around us, neither should we. The church may be suffering an especially bad case of malabarriga, but from this suffering and struggling, God is bringing a new and transformed church to birth.      
In a fit of glorious poetry, Paul says it this way,  “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the joy about to be revealed to us.”

The church is dead!
Not a chance. Not even close!
Thanks be to God!


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Church of the Sensational Nightingales

The Church of the Sensational Nightingales
Text: Ephesians 5:15-20
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 5-7-2017)

Sunday morning with the Sensational Nightingales
                                                  Billy Collins

          It was not the Five Mississippi Blind Boys
          who lifted me off the ground
          that Sunday morning
          as I drove down for the paper, some oranges, and
          Nor was it the Dixie Hummingbirds
          or the Soul Stirrers, despite their quickening name,
          or even the Swan Silvertones
          who inspired me to look over the commotion of
          into the open vault of the sky.

          No, it was the Sensational Nightingales
          who happened to be singing on the gospel
          station early that Sunday morning
          and must be credited with the bumping up
          of my spirit, the arousal of the mice within.

          I have always loved this harmony,
          like four, sometimes five trains running
          side by side over a contoured landscape –
          make that a shimmering, red-dirt landscape,
          wildflowers growing along the silver tracks,
          lace tablecloths covering the hills,
          the men and women in white shirts and dresses
          walking in the direction of a tall steeple.
          Sunday morning in a perfect Georgia.

          But I am not here to describe the sound
          of the falsetto whine, sepulchral bass,
          alto and tenor fitted snugly in between;
          only to witness my own minor ascension
          that morning as they sang, so parallel,
          about the usual themes,
          the garden of suffering,
          the beads of blood on the forehead,
          the stone before the hillside tomb,
          and the ancient rolling waters
          we would all have to cross some day.

          God bless the Sensational Nightingales,
          I thought as I turned up the volume,
          God bless their families and their powder blue suits.
          They are a far cry from the quiet kneeling
          I was raised with,
          a far, hand-clapping cry from the candles
          that glowed in the alcoves
          and the fixed eyes of saints staring down
          from their corners.

          Oh, my cap was on straight that Sunday morning
          And I was fine keeping the car on the road.
          No one would ever have guessed

          I was being lifted into the air by nightingales,
          hoisted by their beaks like a long banner
          that curls across an empty blue sky,
          caught up in the annunciation
          of these high, most encouraging tidings.
(from The Art of Drowning by Bill Collins, 1995; University of Pittsburgh Press)

          Leave it to the poet Billy Collins to transform a routine Sunday drive to a hike into heaven. An English professor in New York, Collins could well be the most unlikely U.S. poet laureate ever named. His poetry often is often flip and funny and seemingly too mundane for one holding the distinguished title of “poet laureate.”  As for me, I want to write a “thank you” note to the committee that selected him as our national imaginative voice, because Billy Collins writes for the common man and woman, his poetry appeals to anyone who is willing to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary goings on of life. It is precisely there, as our Celtic ancestors would argue – in the ordinary goings on of life – that you and I are most likely to meet God.
          Leave it to the Apostle Paul to make a list and then pass it on to the church. I will confess that when I read Paul’s lists, my eyes almost automatically begin to roll back into their sockets, much the way my two grown children’s eyes still do when I pull out my list of things they need to do. Their eyes either roll back or glaze over with parentally caused cataracts. In much the same way, I initially check out when I hear Paul begin one of his long lists of how to be and not be a Christian. 
          The list in Chapter Five of Ephesians is no exception – at least, it is not exceptional at the beginning. Though not all scholars agree that Ephesians was written by Paul, the list in Chapter Five sure sounds like Paul. To paraphrase the apostle, the list begins: “Don’t live like a fool because these are bad times, evil times.” You can almost see Paul’s admonishing finger wagging and I can almost feel my eyes rolling northward.
Then, out of nowhere, the list-giving, dictate-demanding, do-this-and-not-that Paul starts to sound less like an overbearing parent and more like a “sensational nightingale.” His finger drops and instead of raging against fools, he starts to sound like one. He says: “Sing, give thanks to God for everything, all the time, in the name of Jesus.” Now, even here Paul cannot quite bring himself to shift out of the imperative mood, but, at least, it is a much more inviting imperative – “Give thanks to God for everything, all the time.”

Paul is talking about what happens when God’s grace comes sneaking up on you and you just have to sing. He is speaking from experience, remembering the day he was a strident Pharisee, headed out on purity patrol. He was going to clean out the synagogue in Damascus from creeping Christianity when out of the blue he heard the singing of the sensational nightingale, the risen Christ. Years later, Collins would hear the same singing through the collective voices of the “Sensational Nightingales,” as he describes: “I was being lifted in the air by nightingales . . . caught up in the annunciation of these high, most encouraging tidings.”  
          The Apostle Paul and Billy Collins describe the two sides of the grace of God. One side of grace is being lifted up out of the muck of life – the muck of a messed up marriage, a no-future job, the muck of too much power to too little control. You know what it is like to have muck clinging to you; some of you might even be stuck in some right now.  It is nasty and it is thick and it grabs hold of you with the strength of Samson; it is too deep to climb out of and too sticky to shake loose of. The “high, most encouraging tidings” of the gospel is that you and I do not need to try. In Christ, God has given us a lift ticket out of the muck and a promise to climb in with us when the lift is out of order. That is one side of God’s grace.
           The other side of God’s grace is living like a grace-filled, grateful fool every moment of every day because there is just not enough time to return to God all the thanksgiving we feel. The other side of grace is gratitude. And, I have to warn you, gratitude can mess up your life. When gratitude works its way inside you, it makes you see things differently, makes you treat people in ways you never would have done otherwise. Gratitude will send the greed in you packing, because when gratitude nests inside you, you finally know that you cannot ever want for more than what you have been given already. Gratitude will make you turn up the volume when the Sensational Nightingales are singing; otherwise you will miss their song for all the street noise. 
Even scarier, gratitude will turn you into a Sensational Nightingale. Do not forget that Gratitude turned the pious-persecuting-pompous Saul into the certified, original “fool for Christ” Paul. What Paul learned on the road to Damascus and Collins learned on that early Sunday morning drive is what the church is still learning – that the future of the church, the growth of the church, the hope of the church rests not in our being a community of purity police, making sure that we check every theological bag at the church door, sending away those carrying too much baggage or checking everyone’s spiritual ID at the church gate to make sure that they think the same way as we do about Jesus.
The future of the church, the growth of the church, the hope of the church is allowing God’s grace to turn us into a community of sensational, singing nightingales, people who stop Sunday drivers and neighbors and colleagues with “high, encouraging tidings,” people crazy enough to announce that WE CHOOSE WELCOME. The grateful church of Sensational Nightingales will give away their time and money, creativity and commitment, not with parsimonious piety, but with genuine gratitude and gladness for God’s unrelenting pounding of grace.  
          So, pray with me for the day when people will drive up and down Highway 29 and won’t say, “I didn’t even know there was church on that hill” or “Oh Yeah, that’s a nice, cute, little church. Maybe I’ll visit it one day” or “I’ve never heard one thing about that church.” Pray with me for the day when people will drive up and down Highway 29 and say without a stutter or a pause, “Oh yeah, Cove Presbyterian Church, now that’s the church of sensational nightingales.” 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Easter Prayer

The Easter Prayer
Text: Luke 24:13-35
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church on 4-30-2017)

          Emmaus is not as much a destination as it is a state of mind. Emmaus is “the place we go in order to escape,” writes Fred Buechner, “Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that people have had – ideas about love and freedom and justice – have always in time been twisted out of shape by people for selfish ends.”[1]
          For Luke, Emmaus is not just where the two despondent disciples are going; it is what they are doing. They are getting out of town, doing whatever they can to get Jesus off their minds, out of their hearts. They are on the way to wherever they can go to forget that whatever is lovely and sacred dies; they are headed to Emmaus – that place of forgetting, just when someone makes them remember.
Luke tells us that the unannounced stranger on the road is really the risen Jesus, but for the two disciples who are Emmaus bound, he is an ignorant stranger, the only person on earth who has not heard about the horrendous and horrifying execution of Jesus. The two disciples pour out their hearts to this utter stranger. They tell him how much they had hoped Jesus was the one to bring in God’s promised reign.
The stranger on the Emmaus road listens to their woes and then he speaks. What he says is surprisingly curt. He does not comfort them, saying, “I know you must be really hurting now. I can feel your pain.” He says nothing nearly so trite. In fact, he is downright rude. He calls them: “Idiots!  Fools!” Then he asks them: “Have you never read your Bible?” By the time, he has explained the story of Abraham, Moses, David, the Exile, and the return to Jerusalem, they have reached the disciples’ home. 
          At the house, Jesus bids them farewell, but they say: “No. Stay with us for evening is coming.” Actually, by this point, they may well be ready for this biblical know-it-all to move along, but instead, they offer this stranger their hospitality and the stranger stays – at least, for a while.   
Do you remember that story in Genesis when Abraham and Sarah in their great old age are visited by two strangers? Little do they know that these aliens are actually angels. Abraham and Sarah offer them their hospitality and the angels stay long enough to tell this old couple that the next pregnancy test will be positive.  Years later, in The Letter to the Hebrews, the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah is described as “entertaining angels unawares.”
           Inside the house of the two despondent disciples, the story begins to sound something like what you and I often hear inside this sanctuary, what we will hear with old friends returning home next Sunday. The sage, talkative stranger takes bread and blesses it and breaks it and gives it to the two disciples. At that precise moment, the fog lifts and they recognize that he is no stranger; he is the risen Jesus.
Then two things happen almost simultaneously. The risen Jesus vanishes from their sight and yet he does not vanish from their hearts. They experience a serious case of religious nostalgia as they revisit all he said to them while walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.
          That is not all they do. Within the hour, they leave Emmaus. If Emmaus is the place to go when hope has decayed and died, then they cannot stay there, because hope has been reborn in them. It is not just that they want to leave; they MUST leave. You cannot stay in Emmaus once you have seen the risen Lord.
          I love this story. I love its powerful reserve. I love the way it challenges the typical pious Christian comment: “I’m on a sacred journey to find Jesus.” The Emmaus story is not about our search for God, but God’s search for us, even when we are deep in denial, lost in grief, on the run.  
          I am not an Episcopalian, but I do admire many Anglican and Episcopalian prayers. During those times when I have walked the Emmaus road, I have turned to the Book of Common Prayer for words of insight and inspiration. In Luke’s Emmaus story, two disciples invite Jesus to, “Stay with us, for it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.” The Book of Common Prayer captures this ancient act of hospitality in a moving prayer: “Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts and awaken hope that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love.” 
           “Stay with us” is the invitation by the two hospitable disciples. It is not just their prayer, but the prayer of the church, the Easter prayer, a most plural prayer. This prayer is born in hospitality and issued in gratitude, not from a desire to keep God captive here, but to celebrate God’s grace out there
           When we pray for Jesus to abide with us, we pray that you and I will be changed from despair into hope, from sorrow into joy. It is to pray that our eyes be opened to God’s risen presence in the most unlikely places, among the most unexpected strangers.
If we pray the Easter prayer, “stay with us,” we will no longer be able to drive by bombed out city neighborhoods as if they were not our problem or stare at a panhandling stranger as if she were an anonymous intrusive nuisance. To pray the Easter pray is to follow Jesus out of here to wherever God’s children cry out in misery, follow him to jail cells and hospice rooms and civic meetings. The tomb could not hold Jesus, neither can any church building – no matter how old, no matter how historic. He is risen! He is not only here! He is out there!
          To pray the Easter prayer, then, is to hear Jesus shouting for shalom over the separation wall dividing Israel from Palestine, to see Jesus walking the halls of Congress like a mad man who knows that peace is possible for those who desire it more than they desire the economic boom of war. To pray the Easter prayer is to watch Jesus holding a calculator and announcing that the real federal deficit is a deficit of compassion for the working poor, the disabled, the sick, and the aliens who pick our crops, clean our houses, and staff our stores. To pray the Easter prayer is to follow Jesus to wherever the gifts of clean air, water, and soil are being spoiled by greed or neglect. Pray the Easter prayer and we will most likely find the risen Jesus walking along Rte. 29, strolling the streets of Crozet and Charlottesville with our sisters and brothers struggling to find a safe and affordable place to live.       
          “Stay with us” may sound like a nice, sweet, innocuous church prayer. “Sweet hour of prayer.” “Sweet hour of prayer.” But the Easter prayer extends long beyond Sunday morning worship hour and intrudes long after into every part of our day and into every aspect of our lives. Just ask the two disciples walking the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They probably wondered: “What bother can this stranger possibly be?” “How much can it cost us to give this guy some bread and wine?” “Sure, stay with us tonight.” 
How much did it cost them? It cost them their lives. They would never again walk that Emmaus road assuming that they were alone; never walk that familiar path resolved that life is one long extended disappointing replay. They would never again listen to scripture read or break bread and drink wine without remembering how the risen Christ came alive in their midst.

What about us? Are we ready to pray the Easter prayer? I wish I could jump up and down and say, “Yes, Lord, I am ready,” but I have walked too far along the Emmaus road, am too well acquainted with Emmaus, too often comfortable in Emmaus, too stubborn to let go of all my disappointment and despair and fear.    
What two despondent disciples discovered in the comfort of their own Emmaus home was that it is not so much about whether we are ready or not, but that the risen Jesus is ready for us, ready to open our eyes to see his life giving presence even in our haunts of hiding, even in Emmaus. Luke tells this story to call the church to prayer, the Easter prayer, “stay with us.” It is the most powerful prayer that will ever come off any person’s or congregation’s lips. It is a prayer that will cost us our lives.
May God, then, give us the courage, to pray: “Lord Jesus, stay with us; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love.” 

[1]On pages 85-86 of Frederick Buechner’s, The Magnificent Defeat.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Late Easter

A Late Easter
John 20:19-31
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 4-23-2017)

Sometimes Easter comes late. Actually, oftentimes, Easter comes late. It came late for Thomas, but it also came late for his male colleagues. On Easter morning, the Risen Jesus meets Mary in the garden after which she runs to tell the boys, “I have seen the Lord.” That first Easter night, though, they do not throw the party to beat all parties. They lock the door and bolt it, close the curtains, and huddle together, awash in a puddle of fear, giving Mary’s report almost no credence. 
          Then the Risen Jesus arrives. He is clearly the crucified Jesus, because the marks of torture cannot be missed, but at the same time, he is the resurrected Jesus, something more than a disembodied ghost on the loose. He arrives not to lecture them, “Why in the world didn’t you trust what Mary told you this morning?!” He arrives to reassure them, to show them that resurrection is the final word of God. Unfortunately, Thomas is gone; on that incredible night, Thomas misses Easter.
When the missing disciple returns with the groceries, his colleagues stumble over themselves telling him exactly what they had not believed when Mary told them earlier that day. After they tell Thomas all about the wild and mysterious visit by the Risen Jesus, he does not shout, “Amen! Hallelujah” nor is he wracked with doubt – “Maybe what they are saying is right, but I am just not sure.” No, Thomas is dead certain that his good friend Jesus is still good and dead. He is not “Doubting Thomas,” a flawed nickname if there ever was one. He is “Dead Certain” Thomas. The Greek is extraordinarily emphatic here, something like, “I will never believe what you are saying; do you think I have lost my mind?”  
          The Gospel writer also tells us that Thomas is a “Twin.” I would suggest that is more than a genetic statement. In fact, most folks walking around today in and out of the church are Thomas’s twin. One of his most famous “twins” was our own Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a big fan of Jesus, but only the all-too-human, good moral teacher, Jesus. In the “Jefferson Bible,” Jefferson gets rid of all the miraculous stories of Jesus with razor precision, including the Easter miracle. In Jefferson’s Bible, the story of Jesus ends this way: “Now, in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and departed.” Like the disciple Thomas, his “Twin,” Thomas Jefferson, did not doubt that Jesus was somehow both human and divine; Jefferson knew that Jesus was only human.
As far as we know, Easter never came for Jefferson, but as the story unfolds, it does finally come for Thomas. It comes one week later when the Risen Jesus returns to the same house and this time Thomas is home. The Risen Jesus enters the room and says what we say every time we worship together, “Peace be with you.”   
Jesus then turns to Thomas and invites him to do what most of us would love to do – to prove that the dead Jesus has risen, to confirm that by God’s grace the tomb or the urn is not the final reality for our loved ones or for us. Jesus tells Thomas to: "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing" (John 20:27, Author’s Translation).
Instead, “Dead Certain” Thomas does exactly what he swore he would never do. He does not take Jesus up on the offer. Thomas believes without completing the empirical test. In fact, Thomas makes one of the most profound professions of faith in all the New Testament. He looks at the crucified and resurrected Jesus and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
Traditionally, the Sunday after Easter is called “Low Sunday.” The crowds are gone, the music a bit more subdued, the Hallelujahs a little less boisterous, the lilies out the side door. My friend, Martin Copenhaver describes the day well:  “To be in worship on such a day can feel a bit like showing up at a party after most of the guests have left and those who remain report on what a grand time you missed by coming too late” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, p. 394).
It was “Low Sunday” when Easter came for Thomas, when he went from “Dead Certain” that all the Easter talk was so much wishful thinking to being dead certain that somehow the crucified and Risen Jesus was standing right before him and he exclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
Notice how Jesus receives this burst of devotion from Thomas. Jesus does not pat Thomas on the back and congratulate him on this new found faith. Instead, Jesus asks Thomas a question and then makes a sweeping statement. Jesus asks: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).  
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Somehow, the Risen Jesus knew that for most people Easter will come late, must come late, because Thomas was one of the few who saw the Risen Jesus, crucified marks and all. Easter comes at all to any of us because the Risen Jesus still comes to us in the lives of people who help us to say “yes” to faith, people who teach in winsome ways or preach with persuasion or write with too much conviction to be ignored.  
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Easter came to me because of so many people who passed on the faith, who dared to say “yes” to the Risen Jesus even though they could not prove it. Easter came to me because of my maternal Methodist grandmother who taught me to love the God I meet in the Psalms, especially the King James Version of the Psalms, even though I could never convince her that Jesus did not speak King James’ English.
Easter came to me because of parents who did not talk the faith often, but who lived the Christian faith in ways that I understand better each day. Easter came to me because of special adults who were not repelled by my doubts and questions as a youth, but instead,  invited me to do what the poet Rilke advises:  “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer” (Letters to a Young Poet).
Easter came to me because of women and men in every church that I have served who have been walking examples of the goodness of God, women and men who loved me and forgave me, even when I was unlovable and unforgivable. Easter came to me because of Christian social activists who taught me that God loves this world and has little use for pastors and people who want to hide in church. These are the ones who have modeled for me the Risen Jesus’ blessing of “peace,” teaching me that strength does not create peace but peace creates strength.  
          Easter came to me because of Wellford Hobbie who taught me that it is a profound privilege to stand in the pulpit, so do not waste God’s time; because of Bud Achetemeir and Jim Mays and Sib Towner who taught me that the Bible is like walking through a magical door into a room with the greatest mysteries of life, so do not treat it like a bland, moral cookbook; because of Bill Oglesby who peeled away the pretty niceties of pastoral care, so I would never be tempted to think that you can call in care for those in need.
          Easter came to me as a gift from unsuspecting men and women throughout my life who gave to me the gift of Easter faith. Yes, I know the correct theological answer is that the gift of faith comes from God’s Spirit and it does. But its delivery system is living, breathing, women and men of faith. Take a moment and think about who delivered Easter to you, who helped you believe beyond all your uncertainties, amid all your questions, who makes it possible for you to pray to God even though not one of us can prove that God exists, much less is listening to us.
          If Easter has not yet come for you, is still running late, look around. You are surrounded by a community of Easter people, not “dead certain,” not “without a doubt” people, but Easter people nonetheless. They did not come to faith by themselves and I suspect they would welcome the company as they journey past their unbelief into the mystical and marvelous land of belief.
          Yes, sometimes Easter comes late, but thanks to our generous and generative God and thanks to generous and generative communities of God’s people, Easter comes.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

An Early Easter

An Early Easter
Text: Matthew 28:1-10
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 4-16-2017)

I was a bit annoyed. Renee Grisham was interviewing the novelist, Christina Baker Kline about her new book, “a piece of the world.” In the interview, Kline told us the back story of Christina, actually a historical figure who is the young woman lying awkwardly in the field in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting, “Christina’s World.” You will see a print of his painting in your pew. Take a brief look at it.
Then, Renee did what any good interviewer would do. She asked Ms. Kline to read from her new book. Kline took the book, flipped to the last few pages and started to read. Who does that?! Who reads the end of a book to a group of potential readers of the book? I don’t want to know how a book ends before I read the first page. I was tempted to shout: STOP.
While I was stewing over this obvious marketing mistake, Kline’s words somehow managed to draw me into “Christina’s world.” In the novel and in real life, from an early age, Christina suffered from a degenerative neurological disease that eventually would leave her physically mangled and unable to walk. All her life, she is the subject of people’s pity, “poor Christina,” a pity that she rejects with intense pride. Most people, even those close to her, know her only by her infirmity, “poor crippled Christina.”
In the novel, Andrew Wyeth asks a much older Christina to pose for a portrait in the field. By this time in her life, the disease has left her with almost no ability to walk. She crawls wherever she needs to go. When Christina views the finished painting, she sees herself at much younger age. She realizes that somehow Wyeth has captured her, portrayed her, and understood her, in a way she has almost never, if ever, been seen and understood. In the penultimate sentence of the book, the older Christina is reflecting on the younger Christina found in this painting. About Christina, Kline writes: “What she wants most—what she truly yearns for—is what any of us want: to be seen” (p. 296). By the time Kline finished the reading and closed the book, I knew I had been absolutely wrong. I needed to read the rest of the story.  
Over the years, I have found that most people do not know what to do with Easter, including church people. They know about all the trappings of Easter—family get-togethers, egg hunts, big meals, new clothes, occasionally, a festive hat, bright colors, lilies, and lots of alleluias—but to know Easter this way is not unlike only knowing Christina as that infirm girl in Wyeth’s painting; there is so much more to know about Easter, so much more to see.  
In one way, Easter is all about seeing Jesus, seeing him as more than an exemplary moral leader, a clever teacher, a fiery social activist, a miraculous healer, a brutal victim of Rome’s violent hand. Easter is all about seeing Jesus, beloved child of God, flesh of our flesh, bone of our bones, in whom and through whom God wrenches life out of the jaws of death.
In another way, Easter is all about the human, crucified, and risen Jesus, seeing us – not the public us, not the dressed up for Easter morning us, not the put your best foot forward to impress others at church us—but seeing the real us beyond all our masks, amid all our brokenness, despite all our infirmity, and yet loving us nonetheless.
 A great irony of Easter in the church is not only how hard it is for us to see Jesus, but how hard we make it for Jesus to see us through our confident chorales our boisterous Alleluias, as if Easter were ever about us setting aside our doubts and fears; to see us through our anger at God over the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the decline in our capacities, the betrayal of a friend.
Easter is about the human, crucified, and risen Jesus who sees far beyond Peter’s inexcusable denials to a person whom he will entrust with the leadership of the church. Easter is all about the human, crucified, and risen Jesus meeting Mary in the garden and even though at first she cannot see Jesus through her sorrow, he can see her. He sees beyond her sadness and he gently invites her out of the tomb of grief, saying, “Mary, don’t you weep.”
 “What she wants most—what she truly yearns for—is what any of us want: to be seen.” I cannot begin to explain the Risen Jesus, how a man crucified, dead, and buried, is not finally shackled by death. I cannot begin to explain how the walk-the-earth-with-disciples Jesus is also the fresh-out-of-the-tomb Jesus. I cannot begin to criticize Thomas for considering all this Easter talk as so much wishful thinking and religious nonsense. He is in good company, even among many who sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” every Easter morning.
 I can rejoice, though, that the human, crucified, and risen Jesus that I follow sees me, the real me, the without a robe me, the scared of aging and dying me, the too-often-short with my family me, the filled with “what if” religious questions me, the sometimes fine but often failed friend me, the struggle with weight and body image me, the frustrated at bureaucracies, including the church, me. I do not have to pray pretty prayers to assuage God or try to impress Jesus on Easter morning, because God sees me, God knows me just as I am. God sees you. God knows you just as you are. 
That can be a terrifying truth, to be seen and known that intimately. It can also result in an early Easter, for whenever we realize that we are seen and known by a loving and merciful God, Easter has come. Hopefully, Easter will come at our family’s dinner table this morning, as we taste the bread that never runs out and drink from the cup that is never empty. The fare for this meal is soul food, food that gives you Easter dreams when you sleep, dreams of a world where there is enough bread and enough drink for all, where there are always enough loving homes and everyone has access to quality health care, where there are so many people fighting for peace that those who holler for war are drown out. 

In Luke, the human, crucified, and risen Jesus walks with distraught disciples to a town called Emmaus. They are too deep into their grief to see Jesus. It is not until the bread is broken that they see the One who is just waiting to be seen and has seen and known them all along the journey.
So, scoot yourself up to this table, enjoy a heaping helping of this soul food that has been prepared for you and me, then get up from the table and see the world that God loves and for which Christ died and yet lives. Get involved in bringing Christ’s peace into this fearing, vengeful, and death loving world. Do it not because the world has changed today, but because you have. 
What did Kline say about Christina, “What she wants most—what she truly yearns for—is what any of us want: to be seen.” Lean into the truth that the human, crucified, and risen Jesus sees us, knows us, forgives us, welcomes us, loves us, and maybe by God’s glorious grace, Easter may come as early as today.