Monday, July 3, 2017


Text:  Matthew 10:40-42
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 7-2-2017)

               Our house in Alexandria, Virginia was full to overflowing. The average age at this dinner party was 19, with a few guests several years younger and a couple as old as 24. It took all my concentration to follow the conversation, because though all the guests were speaking English, it was English tinted with a lovely Northern Ireland brogue. This group of young Irish men and women had come to the D.C. area for an international Habitat build and were sponsored by an interreligious peacebuilding association.
          All our guests had grown up in and around Belfast. Many had come from troubled family backgrounds and they had agreed to travel to the U.S. to build a Habitat for Humanity house. Prior to the trip, they had been informed that they would be working across Catholic-Protestant lines. What they did not realize was that the group gathered in our house represented an equal number of Catholic and Protestant men and women.
Soon after Jennell and I had been introduced and thanked as the American hosts for the evening, the ice started to wear thin. A young Protestant woman casually said, “I can spot a Catholic two hundred yards away.”
“Can you now?” responded one of the young Catholic males.
“Absolutely,” she said.
At this point, the casual chit chat stopped and no one missed the next words that were spoken.
The young Catholic man said, “Funny, because I can spot a Protestant three hundred yards away.”
A chill fell over the room and the director of the program knew that it was time for him to speak. He challenged this room full of Irish Catholic and Protestant youth to use the next six weeks to move beyond their stereotypes and to extend hospitality to those they had learned to hate since childhood. He told them that hospitality is not an offer to come to our place and to be like us; hospitality is an invitation to share with and to learn from those who are altogether different from us.
At the beginning of the evening, I thought that practicing hospitality would not be much of a hill for this group to climb. After all, everyone in the room grew up within 50 miles of each other, had the same skin complexion, had a similar diet, knew similar songs, and spoke with the same lovely brogue. It did not take long before I realized that for this group to practice hospitality to and beyond themselves would not be a leisurely hike up a little hill, but a hard climb up a treacherous mountain path.
          Thank God that we do not engage in such silly, hurtful, inhospitable, discriminatory behavior in the U.S.; certainly not here at Cove. After all, we are a congregation where everyone is welcome. We say so on our new website that will premier later this week! You are welcome here if you a biblical creationist and believe in a literal interpretation of the first creation story in Genesis and deny any form of human related climate change, or are you? You are welcome here if you think the death penalty is a great idea and a necessary deterrent, or are you? You are welcome here if you prefer rock, hip hop, praise, jazz, and alternative forms of music in worship, or are you? You are welcome here if you believe that the Bible says once and for all that marriage is to be only between a man and a woman, or are you?
 We may not be doing battle in Northern Ireland, but we have our own mountains to climb before we can practice the kind of hospitality that Jesus embodies. Taught from childhood not to associate with Gentiles and that “those kind” were not welcome at his table, Jesus crossed the boundary of segregation. Taught from childhood not to touch anyone who is ritually unclean and that “those kind” prefer to stay with their own anyway, Jesus crossed the boundary of ignorance. Taught from childhood that violence is a necessary tool for change and that unless we use violence, “they” will, Jesus crossed the boundary of retaliation. In Jesus, the oftentimes clipped wings of hospitality take flight.
          Wherever Jesus traveled, he embodied the hospitality of God. I think of Cove as one of the most hospitable, genuinely hospitable, communities of Christ that I know, because it is. That, though, is not how Christians and the church are viewed in much of popular culture. More often than not in most forms of media, followers of Jesus are portrayed as narrow-minded, bigoted, fearful, dull, dense, idiots who are quick to hate, who refuse to forgive, and who, if they know any good news, keep it only to themselves.
          Maybe that is why most progressive Christians I know are so tentative to practice the hospitality that Jesus teaches us to practice. We would rather wait for people to walk inside our lovely sanctuary and to play by our rules, and then we can bestow on them a healthy dose of Christian hospitality. Surely, when you and I come together in worship, to sing God’s praise, to pray for each other and the world, and to sing to God’s glory, then we make glad the heart of God.
I am convinced that we do, but I am even more convinced that we make glad God’s heart leap for joy when do not view this sanctuary as a hiding place, but as a fueling station to go out and practice hospitality. Jesus does not say, “Just stay in your sanctuary and make sure you are extra nice when whoever pays a visit.” He says, “Go, get out of this sanctuary and welcome whoever, especially when whoever looks different from you, votes in a different way than you, thinks about God differently than you, loves differently than you. Listen to whoever, and practice hospitality to whoever, and you will discover that God’s good news comes in many guises.”
          So what happened to the group of young adults from Northern Ireland? They all became best friends, married across religious lines, and never again thought or said a discriminatory word. Well, not exactly. Some friendships were forged across long standing boundaries. Some long held assumptions were challenged and for some, self-righteous religious hatred no longer had the same appeal. A few, though, went home with their prejudices confirmed.
It is a long, hard, and lifetime journey to practice the hospitality of Jesus. It may be a journey that leads some of us to Justice Park in Charlottesville this Saturday, July 8 and later in August to offer a cup of cold water and to hold a tough conversation with grown men dressed in white robes and hoods, as we try to understand the deep well of their racial hatred.
Following Jesus is always a journey that leads to this table that is open to whomever, people of considerable faith and people who doubt if God exists at all, people who are regulars in church and people who are in church for the first time in a long time.   
At this table, we are refueled for the journey of hospitality. For outside these walls and doors, whoever is waiting for us, to listen and to speak, to give and to receive, to forgive and to be forgiven, to hear about the One we follow into life, to practice hospitality with abounding love and in so doing to make glad the heart of God.  
          According to Jesus, we are whoever. We are the ones for whom God has practiced hospitality. We are the ones who are invited then to leave this place and do the same. If you are out of practice, do not worry. We have an outstanding coach who is ready to lead us out of our segregated silos to practice the hospitality of God.
Whoever is waiting.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The One Who Laughs Last

The One Who Laughs Last
Text:  Genesis 18:1-15
(Gary Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 6/18/17)

The story begins so innocently.  Old Abraham is sitting outside in the shade on a blistering hot day while old Sarah is fanning herself inside the tent. Abraham looks up to see three unexpected visitors standing before him. He may be surprised or even leery of these strangers, but you would not know it from his behavior. He does not shout, “Hey, what are you doing on my property?” He does not lunge for his legally registered handgun to defend himself. He does not even ask their names or from where they have come.
No, old Abraham gets up and does what good hospitality requires. He offers these unexpected guests some fresh water and a place to wash up. Then, he leans his head into the tent and tells old Sarah to prepare three more plates for lunch.
           When the strangers share the inconceivable news that Abraham’s postmenopausal wife is going to give birth to a son, he is not the only one who hears the news. Like most of the primal stories in Genesis, this one is told with a healthy dose of irony and humor. Supposedly, Sarah is hard at work inside the tent, but she clearly hears every word from the strangers. At the news that she is going to be pregnant in her advanced years, well, she cannot contain her chortle. 
          Then, the divine guests pose this question to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh at the news about the birth of a son?” Abraham is strangely silent here. He does not defend Sarah. He does not argue that anyone in her right mind would laugh at such news; he just stands mute, letting Sarah take the divine heat. 
As for Sarah, she protests her own innocence, but her laughter is not to be denied. In fact, each time Abraham and Sarah call Isaac to come in for supper they will revisit this bizarre birth announcement, because Isaac is a name that means “son of laughter.” 
           This story is set in the most barren of physical and personal circumstances, in the wilderness with two people living long beyond their reproductive prime. Like most of the early stories in Genesis, it is a story that addresses a primal question and the question is voiced by a stranger:  “Is anything too hard for God?” The obvious answer from Sarah to that question was: “yes.” She laughed at hearing such an absurd promise from God.
          Most likely conceived when the people of Israel were being held hostage in Babylon, this story was written for all who wagged their heads in disbelief, doubting that their defeated God could ever rally to deliver them from the Babylonians. As for our own skeptical age, the obvious response to this question, “Is anything too hard for God?” is to dismiss this as a silly, old, children’s story and to dismiss God as a figment of our wishful thinking along with the silly notion that God has any commerce in the human condition. 
          “Is anything too hard for God?” To that ancient question, the contemporary British novelist, Ian McEwan laughs with Sarah. In McEwan’s novel, Saturday, the entire bizarre, disturbing story happens on one, long Saturday. Throughout the novel, the main character, Perowne, laughs at those who believe in God and pities those who think that there is a God who cares about them and is in any way involved in this tightly closed universe. At the end of a remarkable Saturday in Perowne’s life, a day when a person of faith could well have pondered the hand of God at work, he sees no such hand. He concludes:  “There’s always this . . . there’s only this” (p. 289).
If McEwan were to rewrite this Genesis story, Abraham AND Sarah would have laughed in the face of these strangers and then sent them on their way without supper for trying to pull such a cruel con. Best known for his book, Atonement, McEwan gives voice to a growing sentiment that I hear from the young and old. Their answer is not that anything is too hard for God, but that there is no God. The world is what we can observe and experience, see and feel, no more, no less. God is a projection of our feeble minds that we use to try to gain some stability and control when the world is out of control. “There’s only this.”
              The story from Genesis could have ended with Abraham and Sarah waving goodbye to the strangers and concluding:  “There’s only this.” That, though, is not how this primal story ends. Its focus is not on predicable human experiences, but on the often indiscernible, inscrutable presence and promises of God. Sarah laughs in this story, but the messengers do not. The story does not end with Sarah’s laughter or with frustrated messengers storming away from this seemingly ungrateful couple. It ends with a question for Abraham and Sarah and for any reader of this story: “Is anything too hard for God?”
          Some centuries later, Jesus is stopped by someone in the crowd who wants to be a disciple. Jesus does not ask the man what he believes about God or what ten good things he has done in the past week. Jesus looks at the man and invites him to come and see for himself, but first to give all his wealth to the poor. The man cannot bring himself to do this and walks away in sadness. Confounded, the disciples wonder just who can follow this Jesus and enter the Reign of God to which Jesus responds, “By human resources, it is impossible, but not for God; for with God everything is possible” (Mark 10:27).  
          “Is anything too hard for God?” asks the messenger in Genesis. Is Jesus right when he announces: “With God everything is possible”? If that is the case, then why doesn’t God act more rationally? Why doesn’t God stop Jesus in his tracks and prevent him from being tortured and executed in Jerusalem? Why doesn’t God hand deliver the message to Abraham and Sarah directly and not in the guise of strangers? Is there really a God and does God care one wit about what I pray and what I do or who we execute or who we bomb or who we imprison?
I wish I knew the right words to invite every person I have ever met to at least consider the possibility that God is more than an archaic figment of the imagination or a distant, disinterested deity. I wish I could wipe away all the inane to horrible ways that the church has understood God, from the divine Santa Claus to the divine Terminator. 
I would be lying to you if I did not confess that I have stood mute with Father Abraham and have laughed with Mother Sarah and found myself confounded with the disciples at the impossibility of embracing the possibilities of God. And, on some days, I have even stood with Dr. Perowne, looking out over a pre-dawn world, and concluding that “there’s always this . . . there’s only this.”
          And then, just when I am ready to dismiss the whole idea of God or limit God to being a nice, fictional traveling companion, I am visited by strangers and surprised by grace. A little over a year ago, I visited with a group of strangers, Will, Renee, Fran, Susan, Beth Neville and I was surprised by grace.

          To be honest, there has been some laughter by friends when they heard that Jennell and I were living a settled life in Atlanta to come to Cove. And, truthfully, Jennell and I laughed a few times, asking ourselves, “Surely at our age and time in our lives, God cannot be calling us to a little brick church on the hill?” God paid little attention to the laughter but kept delivering that message through your PNC and into our hearts until we were able to see beyond the sensible and to hear God’s voice above all the orchestrated voices of good sense. Thank God that God would just not take a “no.”
Can I prove it was God’s voice calling me to Cove and not my overactive imagination at work? No, I can’t. And, yet, each day here, I am grateful for God’s call and for the privilege God has given me to be your pastor.
          I doubt that Sarah or Abraham or even the first disciples of Jesus were ever adequately able to explain the providence and purposes of God. I know that I cannot. And yet, over time, their incredulity gave way to faith, confident faith. They were able to look out over the streets of every city and every town and every village and see something that Dr. Perowne could never spot through his narrow empirical eyes. They were able to see the One who laughs last, not derisively, but joyfully, the One who is able to make fruitful in us that which is barren and transform the least likely in us into a lifelong celebration of love.
          “Beware of strangers,” the old saying goes.
                    For good reason.

Monday, June 12, 2017


Text:  Genesis 1:1-3
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 6-11-2017)

 The year was 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The occasion was the trial of a biology teacher, John Scopes. The charge was illegally teaching the theory of evolution. The prosecutor was the three-time Democratic candidate for President, William Jennings Bryan. Using his considerable rhetorical skills, Brian fought fiercely to uphold a recent Tennessee law that made it unlawful [quote] “to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible.”
The year was 580 B.C.E. in ancient Babylon. The occasion was the trial of God. The charge was dereliction of duty, having allowed the troops from Babylon to destroy Jerusalem, all in the name of the Babylonian gods. The prosecutors were bereaved former citizens of Jerusalem, who were now being held hostage on foreign soil, living with nightmarish memories of a scorched earth, of screaming children ripped away from their nursing mothers, of enemy soldiers who set their homes and their temple aflame, of the rape of women, and of the beatings of elderly men.
 In 1925, the Scopes trial tried to turn Genesis 1 into a scientific treatise. Try as might, though, you can never turn poetry into prose. It is quite likely that the 580 B.C.E. Babylonian trial resulted in the writing of Genesis 1, this first story in the first book of the Bible. The first creation story is written to comfort those whose life has turned into utter chaos as they are force marched from their land to the alien kingdom of Babylon. The first creation story claims that from the beginning God has fought chaos to establish the cosmos and God will not stop working God’s creative purpose out even amid the chaos of exilic life in Babylon.
          My late brother, Dale, was a scientist who could never reconcile the claims of Judaism and Christianity with those of science. He would often cite the first creation story in Genesis 1 as an example of the primitive, silly, unscientific thinking that he rejected. On the other side of the philosophical divide, I had a college roommate who spent untold hours defending Genesis 1 as a miraculous and exact account of how God created the world in seven days, even taking the last day off.
 I loved my brother and tried to love my roommate, but they both badly misunderstood the first story in the Bible, and they are in good company. This story is not about asteroids and amino acids, fossils and rock fragments. It is not a scientific treatise at all. It is theological treatise; it is all about God. It is not scientific prose. It is theological poetry.
When scientists, like my brother, read Genesis 1 and insist that it is not good science, they are right. It is not nor was it ever intended to be good pre-modern or post-modern science. And, when fundamentalist Christians read Genesis 1 and insist that this is a story that describes how God scientifically created the world in seven, twenty-four hour, days, they are just as wrong.  
Let me suggest an imperfect analogy to make this point. Picture a cluster of Hurricane victims, all who have lost their homes and now huddle together in a temporary, makeshift shelter. They are wearing borrowed clothes, sleeping on borrowed mattresses, and eating borrowed food.
When the mail arrives, they receive a manila envelope containing pictures of a large body of water where their homes once stood on solid ground. They are exiles from all they know as home. Lost and distressed, these exiles from home are not interested in the meteorological nuances of hurricanes or the intricate mechanization of meteorology.   
The questions that these Hurricane victims are asking are not scientific in nature; they are existential and theological. Like the ancient hostages living in Babylon, they want to know how God has allowed such devastation to occur and if God is even capable of stopping it. They want to know where God is in the midst of their misery, if God hears their cries, and even if there is a God. This is the human situation to which Genesis 1 speaks. It is a poetic statement of faith declaring that even in the chaos, God; even in the darkness, God; in all real beginnings, God.

The great African American poet, James Weldon Johnson, captures the creation poetry in Genesis with this language:
Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again, 
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder. (The Creation)
On this first Sunday after Pentecost, the most fascinating word in this Hebrew poem is ruah, God’s breath-wind-spirit. At the end of his poem, James Weldon Johnson uses these images to capture ruah: 
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
The Genesis preacher uses the imagery of God’s ruah hovering over the futile, dark, chaotic world like a mother eagle fluttering over its young, breathing into its young the breath of life. Wherever chaos rules and life is threatened or diminished, says Genesis 1, God’s breath-wind-spirit-ruach blows.  
 When you and I soar above all those voices telling us to “mind your own business” and “do not cause a stir,” and instead, commit our minds and hearts to stir up justice, especially for those most often ignored, for those most likely with meager means, God’s ruah is blowing. When you and I love our enemies even though they give us every possible reason to hate them, God’s ruah is blowing. When you and I regulate our use of resources, recycle and compost while insisting on energy that is sustainable for all sisters and brothers walking this earth, God’s ruach is blowing.
When you and I give extravagantly to provide for the needs of others even when our personal economy is in the dumps, God’s ruah is blowing. When you and I pledge our lives to make sure that every child baptized at this font knows the love of Christ in us, God’s ruah is blowing. When you and I make time to read and learn and think critically about matters before we speak, God’s ruah is blowing.
The year is 2017 in Covesville, Virginia. The occasion is the trial of Genesis 1.Will we continue to diminish the first story in Scripture and turn it into a biblical cartoon by reading it literally, either as unbelieving scientists or believing fundamentalists or will we reclaim this statement of faith in all its poetic glory?
The verdict, I pray that will be rendered is that we will find this story not guilty of scientific or theological small-minded prejudice, so we can gladly join in the great Pentecost prayer: “Blow, Holy Spirit, blow.”