Sunday, January 15, 2017

Drought Busters

Text:  Matthew 3:13-17
Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, GA, 1-15-2017)

I have never lived through a drought.  I have never seen trees bend over and shrubs shrivel and plush lawns become clay pits because the skies went mute. I have never watched people fear for their livelihood because their jobs depended on rain. I have never watched huge lakes and reservoirs recede to the point that they look like kiddy pools. I have lived most of my life never thinking much about the length of my shower or how much water I used to wash the dishes or how long I ran the faucet when brushing my teeth. There is something about a drought that can bring on a profound respect for water. 
I have, though, lived through another kind of drought that can be just, if not more, severe. Unlike droughts that are cyclical, affecting some and not others, this drought affects us all. And unlike most droughts from which the results are easily visible, this drought’s results are largely invisible but still quite devastating.   
I have watched this other kind of drought develop from the day I was ordained. It is the drought of loss of meaning in life. I witness this other kind of drought nearly every direction I turn and I meet more and more people who yearn for and are in constant search for a way to end this drought.          

Some try to quell this other kind of drought through work – convinced that if they get the promotion or work enough overtime or finally land the right job then the drought will end and their life will have meaning. Some people slip on a wedding ring or move in with a partner, sure that a lasting relationship will end the drought. Some go for long nature walks, train for the Iron Man or travel to exotic, “spiritual” spots, hoping to find that elusive something to end the drought. Some people grab a hammer or bunk down in shelters or stack cans in food banks, hoping that with one more good deed they will stop feeling like their lives are parched and their souls are bone dry. Some have given up on the drought ever ending and try to drown it out at the bar or dull it with the latest drug of choice.
The Gospel of Matthew today takes us to the water’s edge, to the banks of the Jordan where the two kinds of drought intersect in the baptism of Jesus. It is an odd story, but when you get right down to it, the whole notion of baptism is odd.
I got a phone call some years ago from a couple wanting me “do their baby” in a garden party one Saturday afternoon. Once I figured out that “do their baby” meant to baptize their child, I explained the Presbyterian theology of baptism, how it is a sacrament of the gathered community, requiring parents and the congregation to answer some profound questions and therefore should occur in a worship service. “Yes, yes, we understand all that, pastor. What we want to know is if you can do our baby at the garden party next Saturday?” I felt like the losing contestant on a “Reality” baptism show!
Jesus arrives at the banks of the Jordan and tells John that he has come for the same water treatment that everyone else is getting. John is not wild about the idea and suggests that he be baptized by Jesus. Jesus insists that he get the same treatment as everyone else and when the baptism is over, he walks right out of that water and heads dead center into a drought-suffering world. 
The water of baptism was not for Jesus some sort of first century “power drink” that turned him into a “super hero”; the baptismal waters were a life’s reminder to Jesus and to every follower of Jesus that not a day goes by when we are anything less than beloved children of God. Baptism is the water mark that we could not get rid of even if we tried.    
  Baptism can set us free from an endless search for meaning so that we can start living out the full meaning of our divine vocation as “drought-busters.” You want the drought of loss of meaning to end in your life? Follow Jesus out of the waters of the Jordan, says Matthew.  Never forget who else is in the waters with you, says Matthew. Be drought-busters, say Matthew.
There is a problem, though, with these lofty imperatives about baptism. A large majority of people today are turning almost anywhere to end the drought of loss of meaning in life except to the body that is born in the waters of baptism – the church. Pollsters say that a majority of citizens describe themselves as spiritual but not religious; they believe in God but do so without a perceived need for church or synagogue or mosque, for that matter. In fact, for many, the church is the last place they would go to look for life’s meaning and if baptism still means anything for them; it is not much more than a quaint water feature for children at a summer garden party.
So, where does that leave those of us who wear the divine water mark?  What are we who are called to be “drought-busters” to do? To begin with, we are to do nothing and to do nothing regularly. That is, if you consider praying “doing nothing.” Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther argued that he was far too busy not to spend considerable hours daily in prayer. 
In addition to prayer, we, drought-busters do what most people no longer do as we set the alarm, wrestle with the kids, put off important work that is waiting, dust off our doubts and join other drought-busters in worship Sunday after Sunday. Whatever we do, pray, worship or serve, we do so not in a desperate search to find life’s meaning, but in celebration that the meaning of life finds us in the waters of baptism.   
And the meaning of life finds not just us; we meet all kinds of
drought-busters in these waters. Heidi Neumark tells of a reticent, soon-to-be drought-buster in the Bronx. “Stardeshia came in with a question about her upcoming baptism,” writes Heidi. “When she went to the doctor, he told her that he had just the medicine she needed but would not prescribe it for her.  Why not?  . . . `As long as you smoke pot, there’s no point in my prescribing this medicine, because the chemical reaction of the medicine with the pot makes the medicine ineffective – so prescribing it would be a waste’.
“The question Stardeshia then asked me was whether or not her inconsistent behavior and her doubts would cancel out the power of her baptism as marijuana cancels out the power of the medicine.” Heidi answered, “Nothing we do cancels out God” (Heidi Neumark, Breathing Lessons, p. 252).  
God claims reluctant, even scarred drought-busters in the waters of baptism, whether they are as young as Oliver or as old as Stardeshia. Drought-busters do not wear halos, but they do wear the same water mark worn by Jesus and with eloquent voices and sometimes clumsy, even unintended invitations, they help lead others out of the drought of loss of meaning and into the great baptismal waters, through which life’s meaning can be found.   
As I said earlier, there is something about a drought that brings on a profound respect for water. 


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

On the Eigth Day of Christmas

On the Eighth Day of Christmas
Matthew 2:1-12
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 1-1-2017)

 Most say that Christmas ended a week ago. So, why is the sanctuary still decorated for Christmas and why are we still singing Christmas carols on New Year’s Day?
Christmas did not end a week ago, but only began and lasts for twelve holy days, this being the eighth day of Christmas. Christmas will end on Thursday of this week, on January 5, a day before the great feast of the Epiphany.
Epiphany is an English rendering of the Greek word meaning: “to show,” “to shed light on,” “to reveal.” The text for Epiphany is always from the second chapter of Matthew, the telling of the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem. Most folks cannot name the first five books of the Bible, but they can tell you about the Magi, the ones who followed that fateful star, bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant king. For Matthew, the first to worship the new born king of the Jews were Gentiles.
           The Gentile Magi not only bring gifts; they bring trouble. They stir up the curiosity and animosity of King Herod. He sings his not-so-lilting lullaby about wanting to bring his own gifts to the infant king. And, by their disobedience, the Magi bring on the supposed slaughter of all the male children in Bethlehem.    
           Matthew knows that God’s good news always has its enemies; that grace for all is a threat to any who believe grace is only for the few. One has but to love to arouse hatred, to speak truth to awaken a network of deception and lies. Matthew’s Epiphany story is a story of hatred unleashed when love is en-fleshed.
Today is not Epiphany, but by next Sunday the feast of the Epiphany will have passed. So, on this eighth day of Christmas, I invite us to look a few days ahead, look ahead to Matthew’s Epiphany story. When we do, we remember not only Magi who sought light amid the darkness; we remember courageous souls in all times who have lived in love despite blatant hatred and violence. We remember souls like the late Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador.
Initially slow to address the abuses of the poor by his government, finally Father Romero found his voice and soon after the government militia found him.
Gunned down while presiding at the Lord’s Table, these were his final words:

“I have been threatened with death. Nevertheless, as a Christian, I
do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall arise in the people. . . . I will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” 
Father Romero learned at the cost of his own life about the hatred that is unleashed when love in en-fleshed.
          We remember Benjamin Weir, former moderator of our denomination, who was held hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s. Faced daily with torture and the threats of death, Weir recounts how he kept his spiritual sanity: 
“Sunday morning in captivity I awoke. In my mind’s eye I could
see Christians all awaking and proceeding to places of worship. There they gathered at the Lord’s Table. My mind moved westward with the sun. I envisioned people of various cultural backgrounds gathering. I was part of this far-flung family, the very body of Christ.   I unwrapped my piece of bread held back from my previous meager meal and began the Presbyterian order of worship. When it came to sharing the cup I had no visible wine, but this didn’t seem to matter. I knew that others were taking the cup for me elsewhere at this universal table. As others prayed for me, so I prayed for them.” 

Faced with the harangues of hatred, Romero and Weir sustained
life and faced death living out the sacrament of non-violent love. 
I realize that these two Christians are exceptional. I also know that for many Christians today, the season of Epiphany is a footnote that is long ago forgotten. For many, the story of the Magi is arcane and irrelevant, as rusty and useless as an old two-wheeler left out in the rain for years.
          For many churches and for most Christians, today is not the eighth day of Christmas or the approaching Eve of Epiphany. It is New Year’s Day. It is time to start making resolutions so we can break them in good order.
Why fight culture? For Matthew, it is well worth the fight for Epiphany gives notice to the church that the One we follow was born in rags, lest we neglect those who still live in them. The One we follow was forced into exile, lest we ignore and even persecute those who are aliens in our land. The One we follow was executed for trumped-up reasons, lest we forget those who die in our prisons because of justice denied.    
Epiphany declares to the faithful the edgy truth not that if we just believe hard enough then something good is going to happen to us. That is, at best, a naïve, churchy lie. The edgy truth of Epiphany for sophisticated, urbane, well-educated, often cynical Christians is that God’s hope and promise shines with the same luster now as on the first Epiphany. Neither Herod nor Pilate nor Caesar nor any person since has been able to stop the loving and redemptive purposes of God.   
          The Epiphany faith still shines like the brightest star on the darkest night. The Epiphany faith is what creates in us a spirit of non-violent love despite the rousing choruses of hatred, a spirit of invitation to extend a warm welcome to the “other” despite the word on the street to keep to ourselves, a spirit of acceptance to embrace expressions of doubt despite our absolute enchantment with certainty.   
          The Epiphany faith is the gift that Matthew wants us to claim on this first day of the calendar year 2017, on this 8th day of Christmas, and on the great feast day ahead. It is claimed every time we feast at this table and every time the waters of baptism flow. It is a star-shining, hope-giving, life-renewing Epiphany faith in God’s resolution to shine light into utter darkness, a resolution of life and light that God never breaks!       
So, on this eighth day of Christmas and this New Year’s Day, let me be the first to wish you a blessed, a holy, and a star-shining Epiphany!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A God Worth the Wait

A God Worth the Wait
Text:  Matthew 3:1-12
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 12-11-2016)

It is not uncommon for me to run across victims of what I would call, “God abuse.” These victims have listened to pastors, mostly from conservative and fundamentalist pulpits, portray God as a vindictive bully and hateful to all but the select few. The God portrayed by these pastors is mean and petty and insists we be the same. Many good people no longer darken the doors of any church because they anticipate another dose of “God abuse.” I do not blame them. I would stay away as well.
To be fair, though, progressive pulpits advance their own form of “God abuse.” Much too often, progressive pulpits preach a laissez-faire God, who does not commands our awe, demand our attention, or call us to action. This God is removed from our daily affairs and if present at all, is yawning while sipping an espresso, trying to stay awake while listening to our dispassionate prayers. This God is nice and tame and largely a bore.
For me and all my progressive theological kin, it is a good thing that Cousin Matthew is back, has unpacked his large biblical suitcase and is planning to stay with us for a year. The God we meet in Matthew could never be accused of being a “vindictive bully,” but neither is this God an absentee or disinterested parent, distant and aloof, happy for us to do whatever we like, whenever we want to do it. The God we meet in Matthew is not a bore. This God is worth the wait.
No one points to this God with greater passion and precision than John the Baptist. I love the way that esteemed preacher, Tom Long, describes this oddly attired prophet:   “As the door to a new era swings open, John the Baptist is the ideal
hinge. . . His preaching style is vintage Old Israel; his message paves the way for the New Israel. He appears to have wandered out of the some retirement home for old prophets, but he announces the arrival of one who is even greater than the prophets. 
          “Everything is about to change. The old is passing away; the new presses in. The long, long night of hopelessness is coming to an end, and John the Baptist is the rooster who awakens the sleeping world with dawn’s excited cry” (Tom Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, p. 25).
 And just what is that dawn cry? Standing knee deep in the Jordan, “We all discover  . . . not only that we are cherished for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do,” writes David Bartlett. “If God loves me enough to welcome me into Christ’s family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 46).
The late Yale preacher and teacher of preachers, William Muehl, points to such a God in this Advent story, “One December afternoon . . . a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the ‘surprise’, the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The ‘surprise’ flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash.
          “The child . . . began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, ‘Now, that’s all right son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all’.
          “But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal’. And she wept with her son” (Muehl, Why Preach? Why Listen? P. 82).
          At dawn, John the Baptist cries: “Your relationship with God matters. It matters a great deal.” For those who think of faith as a family heirloom, something to which they are genetically entitled, John says, “Think again. God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” For those who think of faith as an accessory to wear on special occasions and certain holidays, John says, “Think again. One more powerful than I . . . will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The God we meet in John’s pulpit is no one’s entitlement and will be no one’s accessory. John’s God won’t be squeezed into anyone’s busy schedule. For the dawn cry from the Jordan is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. That means that time matters and that we use every breath of the day to the glory of God; that justice matters and that we execute justice for all, but especially for the least of these; that righteousness matters and that we live righteous lives as a thankful sign to the world that the kingdom is at hand. The God to whom John points is not vindictive or boring; it is a God, who I, for one, want to know much better.  
          In my conversations with people who have nothing to do with the church or who were once active in the church but are no longer, I hear a common lament. Some are angry about something they have heard or how they have been treated or mistreated. Many speak of times when they were ignored in a moment of need.
The most common lament that I hear from those who are no longer in church is one of profound “apathy.” They feel no compelling reason to change anything that they now do, much less give up a perfectly fine Sunday morning, or any other time during the week, to worship God and commit to a life of Christian service. As they explain to me, the God they have met in too many fundamentalist pulpits is a vindictive bully, while the God they have met in too many progressive pulpits is hardly worth the wait.
I wonder what would happen if they were to encounter the God we meet in John the Baptist’s pulpit. His God loves us enough to burn away all the sorry excuses that keep us as casual spectators rather than fervent disciples. His God is no permissive pushover parent who wants us to do whatever makes us happy; but a doggedly engaged parent who loves us and cares for us enough to expect us to repent. 

In too many progressive pulpits, the meaning of “repent” is diluted to feeling sorry for what you have done or guilty about your past. That does not scratch the surface of what “the Baptist” means when he roars:  “Repent.” To “repent,” for John, is to say goodbye to one way of living in order to embrace the radical, in-breaking vision of God. It is live each day with confidence that “the kingdom of heaven” will not arrive one day in some distant future, but that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, something decisive happened in that Bethlehem manger, in that Palestinian wilderness, on that Jerusalem cross, and on that first Easter morning. By the power of God’s Spirit, the risen Jesus is at work in our lives right now, at work in this broken world right now, and God loves us like the most devoted and demanding parent that you or I have ever met. Issac Watts long ago captured the true dawn cry from John, the only real reason for repentance, “Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Now, unlike the God met in too many fundamentalist and progressive pulpits today, that is a God well worth the wait.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The First Christmas Carol

The First Christmas Carol
Isaiah 11:1-10
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, 12-4-2016)

What was Isaiah thinking? A peaceable kingdom? On this earth? It might make for a lovely children’s book, but it is not a reality you and I are likely to see. Ask endangered species about living in a peaceable kingdom as they are soon to be extinct through a global assault on creation. Ask leaders of the Palestinians and Israelis, of ISIS and North Korea about living in a peaceable kingdom. Ask Republican, Green Party, Democrat, and Libertarians about living in a peaceable kingdom. What was Isaiah thinking?
  Isaiah’s vision of God’s peaceable kingdom is over 2700 years old and it refuses to go away no matter how impossible we judge it. The vision begins not with the image of a healthy tree, but a rotting stump, a metaphor for anyone whose dreams have ever been pronounced dead.
In Isaiah’s vision, all that remains of the tree is a stump that is decaying into mulch. We cannot be sure of the precise time of this vision, but surely, it was a time in Israel’s life when hope for the future had been severed, hope in God’s promise of shalom was rotting like a decaying old stump. 
          So who invited Isaiah into Advent worship anyway? Who needs to hear one more thing about all the decaying stumps around us and inside us? Who needs to hear someone make another promise that you and I know is just not possible? I already hear “it is just not possible” about as much as I can stand. “It is just not possible to believe all this Jesus talk.” “It is just not possible to believe that the church can be something more than a real, old drag.” “It is just not possible to believe that God can do anything with that stump of faith that is rotting inside me.”
To most people today, you and I and churches everywhere are endangered species, if not already extinct. We are the rotting stumps. No wonder the church invites back Isaiah who has been dead for more than 2700 years to walk with us into Advent. At least, Isaiah tells the hard truth about living as a people whose hope for life and peace is like a dead, decaying stump. 
Lutheran pastor, Heidi Neumark began her ministry at the base of a decaying stump called the South Bronx. “The Bronx had international infamy as an urban desert, a landscape of withered hopes, barren of economic vitality, battered by violence, fear, and death,” writes Heidi. “The church’s membership was steadily aging. Most were resigned to the fact that their child-bearing years as a congregation were over.” (Neumark, Breathing Space, p. 11). 
You do not need to travel to New York to see “a landscape of withered hopes.” Some find it in their own mirrors each morning. It may be because they are too young for the job that they know they can do or too old for the job that they will never be given the chance to do again. It may be because they woke up this morning to an empty bed and to fresh memories of when it wasn’t. It may be because they are not the right color or of the preferred sexual orientation to live in the neighborhood where they want to live.
“It is just not possible” is the rotten refrain of the decaying stump. It is a refrain we know all too well. But before you and I buy into that wretched requiem; take notice that we lit a second candle this morning and with it Isaiah returned and not to the pulpit but to the choir.   
Looking out over a sea of “withered hope,” Isaiah sings, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  Isaiah bounds into Advent like some singing fool, stepping around the scattered stumps within us and around us, singing, “Yes, children of God, it is possible.” He sings of a God who has a way of bringing life out of the deadliest locations, the most moribund situations, a God in whom all things are possible.
In the first few months at her church in the Bronx, Heidi spent a lot of time and money painting over graffiti on the church doors. “In walks around the neighborhood,” she writes, “I began asking teenagers and children I met if any of them would like to be part of an art class a friend had offered to help lead. It wasn’t long before a group of enthusiastic young artists came through our doors. Together we read stories from the Bible, which they then illustrated right on the doors.

“At one time, the members would have insisted that the proper place for such artwork was on a bulletin board somewhere inside, but no one could deny that this beat the graffiti. Week after week, the youth painted their hearts out on those doors. It was a joyous, messy process. In spite of all the newspapers taped down, some paint always splattered on the sidewalk, but no matter. It soon faded under the parade of feet that daily passed by, feet of people who stopped to look, to check out what was going on, to offer compliments and suggestions, and to inquire about the church. There has never been another stroke of graffiti on those doors” (Neumark, p. 11).
Isaiah continues his song, singing, “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. . . . He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear.” In the Bronx, others saw only a dying church in a dying borough; Heidi saw the Spirit of God at work. Others told Heidi as Isaiah was told, “It is just not possible. This church cannot survive.” Heidi heard a different song; she heard the crazy carol of Isaiah, that with God “all things are possible.”
In my brief time at Cove, I have learned that this congregation is anything but a dying church. I have watched fresh shoots sprouting, giving witness to what God makes possible out of what once seemed only a stump of dead possibilities. I have watched you leap over personal and political differences to care for each other and for everyone who walks through these doors. I have listened to your passion for the peacemaking power of God at work in Mexico, in Guatemala and in Haiti, in Charlottesville and Covesville. I have been moved by some who have been wounded by churches who have found a pew here and found new hope burning in their souls.
When the Advent candle of peace was lit this morning, I swear I could hear Isaiah singing, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”  Long before Mary would ask, “How is all this possible?” Isaiah would sing a carol of stumps and shoots, of snakes and infants playing safely in the same crib, of peace that lasts long pass an uneasy ceasefire. Long before the star would guide the magi, Isaiah would sing the first Christmas carol about what God makes possible in the world, what God makes possible in us. 
In a world way too familiar with the refrain, “It is just not possible,” and in a church that far too often sings, “It is just not possible,” it is time to pass the microphone back to Isaiah. He has a new refrain for us to sing, a song of God’s peaceable kingdom alive in us and awaiting us all, a song of what God makes possible. Isaiah is back and he invites us to sing this carol smack in the middle of Advent. 


Monday, November 28, 2016

Dancing to a Different Tune

Dancing to a Different Tune
Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Revelation 22:1-5
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 11-27-2016)

I will never sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” the same way. Our Palestine-Israel travel group had just passed through one of the 630 checkpoints in the Occupied Palestinian Territory to enter the little town of Bethlehem. Once we had crossed over to the Palestinian side of the Wall, the bus stopped abruptly. Our guide invited us to stand aside the Separation Wall, three times the height of the Berlin Wall. Covered with graffiti, mostly done at night, the Wall was well guarded by Israeli soldiers in a nearby turret armed with uzzis. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight” is a chorus from the carol that ran through my mind standing next to that Bethlehem wall and it has haunted me ever since.
 I was standing in line at a Stuckey’s, a convenience and eating establishment on the main corridor of the Eastern Shore. I was working for the Virginia Council of Churches in their migrant ministry on summer during college. My job began at sunset when the migrants returned to the camp across the street from Stuckey’s, exhausted from a long day harvesting cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash.
The father and son ahead of me in line at Stuckey’s were looking across the street at the wooden shacks in disrepair that serve as seasonal homes for the migrants. The son asked the father, “What are those?” The father answered without missing a beat, “Tobacco barns.” The migrants were essential to the economy of the Eastern Shore but invisible to most people who lived there. They still are and not just on American farms, but along the U.S.-Mexico border, at the borders of Hungary and Germany, on the Sudan and South Sudan, and wherever children, women, and men are forced to flee from home for safety or for economic survival.
Amid all the recent hardline conversation about refugees, internationally and nationally, I have been reminded at how romantically Christians often observe the birth of Jesus, forgetting that in his birth story, Jesus is himself a refugee. As Matthew tells the story, after the holy family was turned away from the Inn, they were chased from Bethlehem to Egypt; they had no place to call home. In a new hymn by Tom Troeger, we hear the haunting truth of a Savior become Refugee: “The winter wind that storms the barn where Mary holds her child portends the coming brutal harm of Herod’s rage run wild” (from “The Winter Wind that Storms the Barn” by Tom Troeger and music by John R. Kleinheksel).
We live in a nation and a world of immigrants and yet we live in a nation and world running scared not only of immigrants and refugees but of everything and everyone from Palestinians to Planned Parenthood to ISIS to the drug trade to declining churches, even to vaccines. When I am scared, I do not think clearly. I react first and think and pray second. When I am with a group of scared people, I find that our language gets extreme and our positions calcify and if not physical, emotional walls are built.

It was to such a community of scared people that Isaiah wrote and generations later, the refugee, John of Patmos, would write. If any two people had good reason to run scared it was Isaiah writing hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus and John of Patmos writing a couple of generations after the death of Jesus.
The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah read like a wild man with multi-colored hair running down the street, holding a huge placard, screaming, “The end of the world is at hand.” No one took him seriously, but he was the only sane one in the crowd. Isaiah announced that a time of destruction and deportation of his people was coming and everyone scoffed. And yet, this same mad town crier inserted an amazing picture of what God would bring to pass after the dark times ahead.
Exiled on the island of Patmos by edict of Rome, John has an amazing vision of the future that God would bring to pass after the dark times at hand. It is hard to read the words of Isaiah and the vision of John and stay scared. It is hard to hear the words of these divine mad men and not want to get up and dance.
In recent years, an aging Roman Catholic South American priest visited the U.S. and called all people of faith to dance to a different tune than the prevailing music of fear and greed and “Black Friday” consumption. Pope Francis is an elegant dancer who daily shows us a different step, such as when he arrived in D.C. and eschewed attending an elegant state dinner, instead, to attend a holy dinner with the homeless poor.

With much talk today of mass deportations and building bigger walls, the Pope dances to a different tune, reminding us all about refugees, “Perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity, but know that they also possess resources meant to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome them.”
“Do not be afraid” is a chorus that echoes throughout Scripture over the frequent din of fear. “Do not be afraid to welcome them,” says the Pope. Easy for the Pontiff to say. He does not have to navigate all the complexities of immigration policy, nor is he charged with protecting the safety of citizens against those who would do us harm. “Sorry, Pope Francis, we are afraid and for good reason.”
You can be sure, though, that a Pope from the Latin South is anything but naïve about the real causes for fear out there, just as Isaiah and John were not saying, “You have nothing to fear.” Isaiah, John, Pope Francis know the reality of fear, but despite our fears, they invite us to dance to a different tune, by which our fears are recognized, but they do not cause us blindly to dismiss and discard those who are different from us.  
Listen to these Advent lyrics from Isaiah and see if your feet do not begin to tap and your fear begin to fade:
All nations will stream to the mountain of God, all races, all peoples as one; From the ends of the earth to the farthest of reaches, up to God’s mountain they’ll come. Their weapons of anger will all become plowshares, pruning hooks come from their spears; Out of Zion shall go forth instruction for justice, joy will replace all their tears. O, the love of God flows down from the mountain, where war is no more. All the people, the nations, singing together, sing of God’s peace evermore! Joy flows down; let us go to the mountain of God. Love flows down, down from the Lord. Peace flows down, peace ever more!

What the prophet Isaiah could only dream, the refugee, John of Patmos, surely knew. He knew that no matter how dark the clouds hanging over the world, the church, our lives, no matter how high and oppressive the walls we build, the chorus of the old carol is finally true, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
Why? Because you and I not only follow the one born in Bethlehem, we follow the Lord of the Dance who left the tomb empty that first Easter morning. That is why we light the Advent candle of hope today. That is why we follow the Lord of the Dance into God’s beloved world, a world still consumed with fear and hatred, evil and intimidation, and even so, by God’s grace, we are invited to enter this holy season of Advent and dance to a different tune. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

A letter from Paradise

A Letter from Paradise
Text:  Luke 23:23-33
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 11-20-2016)

Dear Mom and Dad,
I am writing to you from Paradise. You will not locate it on any map for it is a reality not bound by time and space. I hope you will find it soon enough or that it might find you, as it did me.
I have so much to say to you, things that I could never have said before now, but things that must be said. I hurt you more than I can explain and more than I can only hope that you may someday forgive. I can’t imagine the pain you endured watching me nailed to posts of wood and listening to the drunken chants of “Hang ‘em up” coming from a mean and angry crowd.
I wonder if in some ways you did not feel some relief at the end of that miserable day. The pain I put you through, though, started long before as day after day you watched helplessly as I kept company with crooks, with insurrectionists, only soon to become one myself. No child should put parents through such torture and for so long as I did and with little remorse.
Somehow, in Paradise, things are clearer than I could ever manage to see while I was with you. The sky began to clear for me, though, on your side of Paradise. It cleared while I was hanging from the cross and watching the circus of death around me. It is hard not to focus solely on what is happening to you at a the time of an execution, but the focus in that trash heap outside Jerusalem was never on me.
The crowd was not the typical group who never missed a public execution. Yes, there were the usual suspects, families with picnic baskets and bottles of wine, out to celebrate the deaths of crooked criminals, having convinced themselves that one more death would make them feel that much safer. On my own death day, if you noticed, the crowd also included the most powerful religious, political, and military leaders in Jerusalem, people who convict but who rarely spectate at executions.
The Jerusalem leaders came to our field of crosses not so much to make sure I died, but that he died. Of everyone in the crowd, they were the one shouting the loudest. “Save yourself, Messiah!” “If you are the mighty King of the Jews, save us from Mighty Rome.” Even a fellow thief on a nearby cross, used his few breaths to shout, “Save yourself and us, for that matter!”
I thought to myself, “Save us from what?” “Why save us?” was something I also thought. As you are painfully aware, I was guilty. There was no saving me from that hard and ugly truth. Still they shouted:  “Save us!” Most of the shouts were not serious. They were terrible taunts of the one beside me, also bleeding from every pore of his body, a so-called “Savior” who could not manage to even save himself. They shouted their obscenities as if he was getting exactly what he deserved.

I did not join them. I can’t tell you what it was that made me say what I finally said, made me not join in the heated chorus of hate. It wasn’t because I was above their petty, ignorant, chants. I was a criminal. Maybe that was it. Something about a criminal knows another criminal, as if both are wearing an unmistakable badge of dishonor. There was nothing criminal about this man. I even heard him cry out, “Forgive, forgive them, for they have no idea what they are doing.” He prayed for the very ones who were executing him. Trust me, I did not join him.
 To this day, I do not know why I did not join the chorus. How did I know that there was so much more to this man than could be contained by a cross? What I did know is that I was not going to ask him to save me. Save me for what? Save me from what was coming to me until I found myself up here again a few years later? I did not want him to save me. I wanted so much more. So, I asked him. I asked more of him than I had ever asked of anyone. I asked more than I even knew I was asking. 
I asked him to “remember me.” I don’t know if you were close enough at that moment to hear me utter those words. If you were, I can only imagine you thought that the pain had made me lose my mind. Asking another dying man to “remember” must have sounded like asking a sheep to dance.  
As you know, I had never been much of a believer in God. It seemed like a game for simple fools and I may have been a criminal, but I was no fool. I listened to this man hanging next to me and somehow it finally made sense, all this God talk. Somehow I knew that I did not have to go looking for God, God was hanging next to me on a cross. This God was not the powerful tyrant of my childhood. I had left that God behind years ago. No, this God was far more powerful than any tyrant. This God was willing to love and forgive, even the very ones dealing in death.
So, I asked him to “remember me” and he said something that still brings chills to me. He said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” And, he kept his word. I did join him but I can no more explain Paradise to you now than I could when he first spoke those words to me. The best I can manage is to say that Paradise is being known by God, God finding us even when do not know that we are lost.
Whatever sense you make of your own lives all these years later and whatever grief over me still grips you, I ask you not to remember that horrible day, but to remember the one who was hanging next to me. He spoke words of forgiveness that only made the crowd laugh that much louder. He meant every word, including his promise for me to join him in Paradise.
Mom and Dad, I do not know if you still pray, but if you do, I commend a simple prayer that opened a new reality to me. I prayed that he remember me someday, when he came into his kingdom. He answered me not “someday” but “today.”
I write you today hoping that you will pray the same words I prayed that dreadful day. Pray “remember me.” When you do, you might well find yourself with one foot already in what is my home, in a place called Paradise.