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.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Real Triumphal Entry

The Real Triumphal Entry
Text:  Matthew 21:1-11
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 4-9-2017)

When Jesus entered the holy city of Jerusalem, there were all kinds of expectations living in that crowd. You are about to listen to an imaginary letter written by a member of a Jewish religious party, the Zealots, who were active in the time of Jesus. The Zealots believed in the power of violence. Some Zealots were no doubt in that Palm Sunday crowd, trusting that Jesus, the Promised Messiah of God, would lead the occupied Jews in a mighty overthrow of Rome. Listen now to this letter to Jacob. 

Dear Jacob,

No life is lived without regrets. As I prepare for evening prayers, I regret you were not with me this morning in Jerusalem. Nothing I say can capture the frenzy of being here for the high holy days. As you know, you do not stroll through this city during the holidays, you squeeze between vendors and tourists, while Romans make an embarrassing show of their power and strange looking Jews from lands I have never heard of pour into the Temple.  
Jacob, as you know, I am not one easily stirred to change my ways or to think differently than I have always thought. I take comfort in tradition and am usually uncomfortable with any who challenge it. I mean no offense by what I am about to say, but I am here less because of your urgings over the years to “go to Jerusalem,” and more because I could not stay away this year.
As a boy, I spent hours fighting the imaginary Philistines and their loud-mouthed, taunting toad, Goliath. I was young David slinging my two smooth stones against the enemy, watching the giant bleed to death, while I shouted a victory cry to God.
Like you, Jacob, I have lived all my life with Goliath spewing his putrid breath all over our land, restricting the movement of our people, taunting us for sport, keeping watch over whatever we do, humiliating us by profaning the Temple, crucifying anyone who gets in the way, and doing things to our women that I cannot bear to imagine.  
Like you, Jacob, I have lived for the day when someone would sling two smooth stones at that Goliath called Caesar, for the day when the Promised Messiah of Israel would rise up against Rome, call together a mighty legion, and deliver a decisive blow against our enemies. I have longed for the time when we could join the chorus of angels responding to the Psalmist’s question, “Who is the King of Glory?” with the glad shout, “The LORD, strong and mighty.”
That is why my heart aches tonight with a strange mixture of regret and exhilaration. Had you been here this morning, you and I would have danced like two proud Jews at a wedding feast when the glass is smashed. Forgive me though, I am getting ahead of myself; I am talking about everything except what did happen this morning. 
I know that your health is not what it once was, certainly not good enough to make this difficult journey. So, as you have often done for me over the years, let me be your eyes for this day of days. Before I do, though, you know me well enough to know that I am not easily impressed by the presence or prowess of another man. Few men alive could do battle with me and live to battle me again. The LORD God, Master of the Universe, blessings be unto him, gave me great strength of body and agility of mind. Not only am I not easily wrestled to the ground, I am not easily fooled by the words of those who purport themselves wise, but are really fools.
I am not one prone to follow, but to be followed by those seeking my counsel or fearing my reprisal. The thought that I would leave behind even an afternoon nap to follow a carpenter from Nazareth is almost laughable. I was born into a prominent family in an influential town; Jesus is from Nazareth that backwater town about which the ancient prophet rightfully asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Jacob, I know that this Jesus has captured your imagination as well. You were the one who invited me to listen to this wanderer, to watch his enthralling way with people and how crowds came to him like thirsty ones to a pool of water. I do not put much credence in fish tales of miraculous doings, but I do remember how the ancient prophet spoke that when the Promised One of God came that the blind would see, the deaf would hear, and the binding of captivity would burst.
I have followed this Jesus for some time now, even though I am no follower of any man. I have watched him do battle with the best of our debaters and bring healing in ways that I cannot begin to explain. I have prayed, asking, “LORD God, is he the Promised One whom you have sent to redeem our people? Is he our long awaited Messiah who will crush Rome like a wedding glass and restore to us our land and our dignity?”
Finally, God answered my prayer this morning, Jacob. Before today, I did not know how shrewd a military leader this Jesus is. You remember the prophet Zechariah’s ludicrous saying, “Lo, your king comes to you; . . . humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9)? Zechariah was trying to pacify the powers that be then, for you and I know that no king arrives anywhere on a beast of burden. Rome knows that as well.
So, what happened this morning? How did King Jesus make his grand entrance into Jerusalem? Not just on one beast of burden but two, looking like the ringmaster in a circus. I nearly fell over laughing at the sheer brilliance of his military strategy.
No occupier likes to see a crowd gathering, particularly around anyone but their king. The crowds around Jesus have nearly tripled in size since you last heard him, Jacob. That fact alone made me reluctant to come to Jerusalem.  I steer clear of Romans in a bad mood and big crowds of celebratory Jews, even though they are my own people, always make me nervous.
The Romans on watch must have looked at this crowded, comical procession, and sighed in relief. When we tossed our cloaks and laid our branches and shouted our “hosannas,” our “God save us,” it must have given them a great laugh, and if God is good, their last laugh. They must have laughed themselves silly over this “triumphal” entry into holy Zion. Their sides must have hurt from chortling at this surreal scene of Jesus “the King” sitting astride two burdened beasts with mostly, country peasants tossing branches on the ground as if Jesus were about to mount his throne.
While the Romans laughed in derision at this patchwork parade, I laughed in delight that Jesus was finally ready to rule with the full force of God.  Finally, Jesus will turn this crowd of pitied followers into an unstoppable force of God’s soldiers to join with legions of angels to restore us to our home, our land and like the Egyptians crossing the Red Sea, the Roman hyenas will soon choke in pools of their own filthy blood. 
 As for our brown-nosing brothers, the Sadducees, they will soon find themselves lamenting that they were sleeping with the enemy. And, the pious Pharisees will soon find that they have underestimated this Jesus, losing sleep when he overturns their tedious teachings and stagnant traditions.
 What a brilliant decision that Jesus made to enter Jerusalem like a clown. At least his entrance looked that way to Rome. This morning, though, to those of us zealous for God, we know, at last, we know that Jesus is now poised to do what God has sent him to do – what the wisest prophets have promised from of old. The Romans do not fear this clown, nor do our brothers the Sadducees. The Pharisees do not respect him and his disciples do not understand him. They all will soon learn. Jacob, this is why I wish you were here now, not just to have witnessed the great scene this morning, but to see the devastation that the LORD God is about to unleash on Rome.
 I fear the most for those closest to Jesus, what he calls his “disciples,” those who have followed him month after month. They have heard him talking about the impotence of hatred, the futility of fighting, not lifting sword against sword, the senselessness of one nation imposing its will on another nation. Little do they understand that Jesus has just been pacifying Rome, reeling them in with his verbal nonsense. Little do they see that when all the Jews have arrived for Passover that Jesus will send Pilate into the streets crying for mercy and the Roman guards will wish they had somewhere to run.
Jacob, for those of us who are zealous for the LORD, this is the time for which we have prayed. This is the time when God will turn our plowshares into swords and our new David will lead us. He will not only liberate our people but  will liberate the Roman people as well.  
On this blessed night, I will lift up my voice to the heavens in thanks for Jesus – the one man I will follow, follow with sword in hand until the Sadducees suffer, the Pharisees cower, the disciples know and the Romans taste the same justice that we have known these many years. Jacob, surely today as Jesus entered Zion, we have come to the brink of the reign of God for which you and I have prayed. Surely, today begins the first true holy week. 
O brother Jacob, how I wish you were here.

That is one way to see Jesus, as One who will embrace violence for a holy cause. The Gospel writers invite us to see a different Jesus, a Jesus who will enter Holy Week and weep with Martha and Mary at the sight of death, a Jesus who will tell Peter to put away his sword, a Jesus who will pray for his executioners even as nails are being driven through his hands, a Jesus who though wrongfully executed at Golgotha will insist that we reject violence and trust in his suffering love.
Follow this Jesus, and his entry into Jerusalem and into our lives will truly be triumphant.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Last Word

Last Word

If only
If only
If only
Two short words
Yet long words
Longing words
Piercing words
Inflamed words
Spoken without filters
Wrenching words
Condemning words
Mournful words
Spoken by Martha
Spoken by Mary
Spoken by us

I am
I am
I am
Two last words
Grave busting words
Life-giving words
In flesh words
Spoken by
the last Word

Gary W. Charles, April 2, 2017
(inspired by John 11:1-45)

Last Word
Text: John 11:1-45
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 4-2-2017

If you want to make lots of money in the movie business today, dust off an old Marvel comic book and resurrect an action superhero. Along with remakes of the classics – Superman, Superwoman, Wonder Woman, the Incredible Hulk, and Batman, newer movies also feature Wolverine, Spiderman, Ironman, Aquaman, Thor, Captain America. In the comics, superheroes find a winning way to confront super villains and no matter how evil the world, superheroes always prevail in the end.
Some people see Jesus as yet one more superhero and they read today’s story that way. As Superhero Jesus, he hears about the impending death of his friend Lazarus, but does not rush to save him, because he knows that even after Lazarus dies, he will go to the tomb, shout down death, and brother Lazarus will come out dancing. He dismisses the “if only” protestations of Martha and then Mary, because superheroes always prevail in the end; so Martha and Mary should know that! Later,  Jesus can even go to his own tomb knowing that as a superhero he will only be paying it a fleeting visit.
I doubt if the movie business will ever make much money off “Jesus the Superhero,” though Mel Gibson gave it a good try some years back. Even in John’s Gospel, Jesus is way too human to fit into a comic cape. Jesus does what any feeling human being does in the face of death; he joins his friends Martha and Mary and he weeps.  
Jesus weeps. Well, that is a problem and the presenting cause for Jesus to be disqualified from admission into the Superhero Club. Superheroes do not weep; they get even! They chase down the mutant gene that has caused Lazarus to get sick unto death and then they destroy that deadly gene. They zoom into the tomb and in a fantastic display of power walk out of the tomb holding the dead man, now living, on their shoulders. Then they round up all the scoffers in the crowd and destroy them with a fantastical flourish. That is what superheroes do! They do not weep!
No matter how hard we try to script him that way, Jesus is no superhero. True, in John, there are hints of superhero behavior by Jesus. He knows what the dense disciples cannot figure out; he knows that Lazarus is not having a three day sleep; he knows that Lazarus is dead. In this story, Jesus is more than a human friend of Lazarus; he is also the Promised Child of God, chosen to bring life to the world. Jesus does what no one before and no one since has done; he calls Lazarus, long dead, to walk his stinking self out of the tomb. And, Lazarus does.
Even so, throughout John, Jesus is all too human. He meets Martha and Mary, just as he meets us, in our grief. Faced with the death of a friend, Jesus the not-so-superhero weeps. Faced with the pain of grief and horror of death, Jesus wept. He still does.
Jennell, Kelly, and I have each spent significant time in Haiti. The poorest country in the Northern Hemisphere, a short plane ride from Miami, was devastated by a catastrophic earthquake in 2010, only to be followed by a catastrophic hurricane in 2016, only to be stripped of its natural resources by international businesses and foreign countries, and Jesus weeps.
Did you know that our country has “the second highest child poverty rate among 35 industrialized countries . . . A child in the United States has a 1 in 5 chance of being poor and the younger she is the poorer she is likely to be.” (Children’s Defense Fund). Over twenty million children in the U.S. live in extreme poverty, many having access to no more than one meal a day, while income inequality has reached record highs, and Jesus weeps.
In the 140 years of record-keeping, the past ten years have been the warmest years on record and last year was the warmest year of all (source: NOAA), and still leaders across the land play ostrich when asked to deal with the daunting consequences of climate change, and Jesus weeps.
A few years back in Atlanta, Brian and Sharon and Joshua Blount paid us a visit. Josh went for a run and was stopped by the neighborhood patrol. His only offense was that he was a young black male running in a predominantly white neighborhood, and Jesus weeps.

Hardly a day passes without news of a friend, a church member, a colleague whose body is being assaulted by cancer or whose mind is under attack from dementia or whose personality is being ripped apart by mental illness, and Jesus weeps.
The church in America has reared one or more generations of young people who do not see Jesus as a Superhero nor do they see him as the beloved and chosen Child of God. For too many people today, Jesus is simply not on their everyday radar at all. They do not necessarily think poorly of Jesus; they simply do not think of him at all, the One who is the light of the world and our living water, the resurrection and the life, and Jesus weeps.
Maybe John made a mistake in how he tells the story of Jesus? Maybe the story should begin where it ends, with the Risen Jesus looking far more like a superhero, walking through doors, appearing and disappearing out of nowhere. Maybe John, along with Matthew, Luke, and especially Mark, start their stories in the wrong place.
After all, who wants to follow a Jesus who hours before his own death begs God to change God’s mind? Who wants to follow a Jesus who can be angry enough at economic exploitation to disrupt shady commerce going on in the Temple? Who wants to follow a Jesus who does not call down a legion of angels against wrongful execution as devils nail him to a cross? Who wants to follow that kind of Jesus?

I do. I want to follow a human Jesus, who weeps in the face of death, who gets angry in the face of economic exploitation, who trusts in the grand love of God even when that love does not bypass the tomb. I want to follow Jesus right out of Lent and into Easter, right out of all that is deadly in me and in the world into the life-giving purposes of God. 
I want to stand by my mother’s and father’s and brother’s graves and know my Redeemer Liveth and because Jesus does so will my father and brother and mother  and so will you and so will I. I want to eat this bread and drink this cup because Jesus invites me to a feast where the food never runs out and where the dress is “come as you are.” I want to follow Jesus into prison cells and under the bypass of highways, into homeless shelters and into refugee camps, and  into schools where the children enter hungry every morning, because if the parable Jesus tells elsewhere is true, that is where I will surely find Jesus, not the Superhero Jesus, but the Beloved Child of God, Jesus.
I want to trust in the all-too-human, weeping, crucified, and yet, by God’s grace, risen Jesus who is the last word of God, a word of life, who gives life, who calls forth life even from the bowels of death. Now that is a Jesus worthy of all my trust. In that Jesus, I do trust.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Most Likely to Succeed

Most Likely to Succeed
Text: I Samuel 16:1-13
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, on 3-26-2017)           

          In our recent move, I ran across my parents’ high school senior yearbook. In it, there are several pages devoted to special students – “Best Athlete,” “Best Dressed.” “Best Student.” The one that caught my eye, though, was “The Most Likely to Succeed.” Beneath the title was a handsome, shaved, buff, All-American looking young man – someone whose appearance leaves no doubt that he is heading down the highway of fame and fortune.  
          The text for today is written for those of us who are easily seduced by appearance – be it the clean-cut chap voted “The Most Likely to Succeed” or the obstreperous teen with rings and tattoos adorning every conceivable body part. At its heart, this biblical story suggests that our eagle eyes and initial impressions are not nearly as foolproof as we often assume.
          In this classic tale of surprise, the wise and venerable prophet Samuel visually inspects the children of Jesse, one by one. Each son is pleasing to the eye and as each son parades past Samuel, the prophet is sure that “this must be the one that God has chosen to be king!” The parade of sons ends though and not one of Jesse’s sons is the one chosen by God to be king. Samuel judges on appearance only and as a result, he misjudges God’s intention. It is not until the young, ruddy, runt David is summoned that Samuel finds the son chosen by God – a choice that Samuel himself would never have made in a thousand years.
          Each of Jesse’s older sons had the customary appearance of a king, but looks in this particular story, as is so often the case in life, were absolutely deceiving. Confounded by how God could not choose one of these fine looking boys to be the next king of Israel, God informs Samuel:  the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." Samuel’s judgment was flawed on repeated attempts, because he failed to understand that you never know a person until you have looked beyond initial appearance and have seen their heart. 
          What would you say if you were asked: “Who is Gary Charles?” Some might answer, “He’s a Presbyterian pastor, the new pastor at Cove.” “He’s Jennell’s husband and Erin and Josh’s dad.” “He’s the guy who has way too many opinions and never hesitates to share them in the pulpit.” All of those statements are true, but they are not worth the breath used to speak them, until you have seen my heart.
          The Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . . for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Doesn’t that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, knowing that God does not judge us by outer appearance, but by the quality of our heart? 
          Before answering that loaded question, think twice. Do we really want God to see the inner recesses of our heart, see greed masquerading as concern for an aging parent? See racism dressed up as civic virtue as we protest that we are just trying to keep our neighborhood “safe.” Is it good when God sees our hearts turned stone cold, keeping an excel spreadsheet on every slight done to us or when God sees us playing fast and quick with the truth while lamely excusing it as a “white lie”?
           It can be a terrible thing when God looks only on the heart. Had God looked only on David’s heartfelt lust for Bathsheba, he would never have remained king.  Had God looked only on David’s heart as he conspired to get rid of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, David could well have lost more than his kingship. 
          God does look on the heart, but not in order to entrap us and to condemn us, but to restore us to the image in which you and I were created in the first place. God looks on young David’s heart through eyes of grace and is able to see a king, is able to see beyond the ways David will break God’s own heart. As John says it so well in his Gospel, “God did not send God’s Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” When God looks at our hearts, God no doubt sees our scars and wounds, sees the horrors that we do to ourselves and to others, but God also sees something in us far beyond a broken and damaged heart.  
          What do you suppose other people see when they look at Cove Presbyterian Church? That is what I was trying to find out last year before I accepted the call to be your pastor. I had driven by the church many times on my trips from Atlanta to Waynesboro. Driving along at 60 or 70 mph on Route 29, Cove struck me as one of the countless charming 18th century brick sanctuaries that can be found throughout Virginia. I even wondered aloud on occasion if this church was still open. You see, the tiny signs for Cove on 29N and 29S do not tell you much; first impressions rarely do.
The far more important question is: “What does God see when God looks on the heart of Cove Presbyterian Church?” It was not until a very cold early winter night a year ago that I first began to uncover the answer to that question. On that night, I met with the Pastor Nominating Committee for the first time, with Renee and Fran, Will and Susan and Beth Neville. I soon learned that my first impressions of Cove were woefully inadequate. I began to see the heart of Cove as I listened to members of the PNC share their stories. Then, we walked into this holy sanctuary and I felt the faith of not only the members of the PNC, but of the countless members and pastors and musicians who have come before us. 
           When I asked members in presbytery for impressions about Cove, they cautioned me that Cove has not called a full time pastor in years and some wondered aloud if it were wise to do so now. Some even suggested that Cove should find another small, struggling congregation and together share a pastor. Clearly, these presbytery members knew something about Cove, had some definite first impressions, but they knew Cove mainly from outward appearance and as a result, they had a poor read on Cove’s heart. In fairness to them, though, that is what we mortals are apt to, to render judgment on first impressions, but God looks directly on the heart. And, God knows that the heart of this church is so much larger than any person could ever see from the street or know from afar.
          I am convinced that when God looks on the heart of Cove, God sees the strength of longtime members who have persevered and provided perspective through troubled transitions and challenging times. God sees the courage of Cove to choose welcome in a time when many are choosing to withdraw or close doors. God sees Cove’s passion for mission, from housing a fine preschool for children on the grounds to building homes with partners in Habitat, from supporting mission workers in Haiti to laboring in new construction in Reynosa, Mexico, from keeping the Food Bank supplied with food to exploring how we might host refugee families. God beams with pride looking on the hearts of members caring for the well-being of each other, with wood delivered and food prepared, hospital visits made and prayers offered.

             My strong hunch is that when God looks at Cove Presbyterian Church, God sees a living, lively, loving, sometimes quirky, always opinionated, definitely inquisitive, abundantly generous, body of Christ, a company of flawed and fabulous hearts that surely have made and will continue to make glad the heart of God.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Adjacent Possible

The Adjacent Possible
Text: Genesis 12:1-4a
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 3-12-2017)

A few years back, I read a book by Steven Johnson called, “Where Good Ideas Come From?” In his book, Johnson introduced me to the concept of the adjacent possible. He borrowed the phrase from research in prebiotic chemistry being done by Stuart Kaufmann. For Johnson and Kaufmann, the adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
          Johnson helps explain the concept with this fascinating metaphor:

“Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. . . . The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.” (pp. 31-33).

As Chapter Twelve of Genesis opens, we meet Sarai and Abram for the first time. So far, in Genesis, all the stories have been a series of disappointments. Adam and Eve are promised the good life, but opt for wanting more. Cain kills his brother out of jealousy. Noah is rescued from the great flood only to stumble off the boat in a drunken stupor. The world is united by one common language, but when they reach beyond their means, babel results.
As readers, we do not expect too much from Abram and Sarai when God instructs them to: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” So far in Genesis, human behavior has been all too predictable; no one has been willing to step into God’s adjacent possible.
After an invitation to enter into God’s adjacent possible, I can imagine Abram and Sarai having one of those difficult “couple’s conversations” during which temperatures rise and voices soar:
“Abram, if you think I’m leaving home and family to head off to God knows where, well, you’ve got another think coming!”
You say that it was ‘God’ inviting us to pull up stakes, leave our friends behind, and head to destinations unknown. And, I say, ‘You and God have a nice trip’.”
And, if not a “couple’s conversation,” I can imagine one of those “crossroads conversations,” especially since the city Haran from which Abram and Sarai are called to leave, literally means “highway” or “crossroads”:
“Sarai, maybe we should go, but if I am honest, I am not even sure what I believe about God, much less believing promises from God about life on the other side of Haran.”
“God seems to have more confidence in us than we have in ourselves. Maybe God is making a mistake choosing us?”
The remarkable thing about the story is not that Abram and Sarai are invited to walk into God’s adjacent possible, several characters in Genesis have already declined the invitation. The remarkable thing about this couple is that they choose to walk forward through the mysterious door of possibility that God holds opens for them, having absolutely no clue what awaits them on the other side of that door. On the journey ahead, they will walk into rooms that look as expansive as a starlit sky on a crystal clear night, but also into rooms that will make them wonder why they ever left Haran. Into each room, they will walk into a future about which they have only God’s promise.
   It is no surprise, then, that years later, when the Apostle Paul talks about faith, he points to Abram and Sarai, who pack their bags, leave their expansive homestead, and walk into God’s promised future. On their journey, they learn what the scientist discovered in his research in prebiotic chemistry; you cannot leapfrog the adjacent possible. You cannot leapfrog from God’s promise of land and progeny into the reality of land and progeny. Doors have to be opened, rooms explored, and trust maintained.
By the time we meet Abram and Sarai, they are long past their childbearing years. What God holds out to this aging couple is well beyond their estimate of what is possible. God invites them on a journey into new rooms of promise that will lead them far beyond being “barren” into God’s fecund future. In a decision that comes as a surprise to everyone, Abram and Sarai accept the invitation and set out into God’s adjacent possible.   
The season of Lent has long been pictured as a journey into God’s adjacent possible, but this season, I find myself stuck in the Lenten starting blocks, stuck in Ash Wednesday, unable to find the door into the adjacent possible, much less to walk through it. I find myself stuck in sorrow over the violence being done to mosques and synagogues across the nation and the violence we never hear about being done in the depths of our inner cities. I am stuck in bewilderment at how quickly and easily we use social media as a launching pad for vicious assaults on others with complete impunity. I am stuck in grief over national attitudes that punish the victim for being female or gay, bi-sexual or transgender, a person of color or a person who lives on the streets.  
To speak of God’s adjacent possible on this second Sunday in Lent feels a little hollow, maybe like telling a barren couple that they were going to have the world’s largest family. And, yet, this is the very couple to whom we tie our hopes when we follow Jesus on the Lenten journey into God’s adjacent possible. This is the very couple that inspired Jesus to resist the temptation to leapfrog rooms of deprivation and suffering, as if he could ever know his full humanity without walking into the same rooms of suffering and grief that Sarai and Abram and you and I walk and walk with others all too often.
In many ways, it is easy for a comfortable, white, male to opine about walking into God’s adjacent possible. The obstacles before me are so few. It is so much harder for many of my friends to dare to do so. On our recent drive to the Outer Banks, Jennell and I passed two enormous Confederate flags, prominently placed next to the highway. As I looked at those flags that were not waving for National Confederate History Month, but as a visual sign of intimidation to people of color, I was reminded of a poem by Langston Hughes, a black poet from Joplin, Missouri, who dreamed about walking across the landmines of racism to enter into God’s adjacent possible.
In his poem, “I, Too,” Langston dreams:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll sit at the table.
When company comes
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen.”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –

I, too, am America.

I wish I had the faith fortitude of Abram and Sarai and Langston. I do not. I need you to help me get unstuck, so together we can walk into God’s adjacent possible. I need you to remind me that God is calling us into new rooms, into new possibilities of mercy and love, forgiveness and forbearance, new rooms that expand with our faith and imagination.  
What would it mean to pray FULLY: “O God, may I have the courage, resilience, and imagination to walk into God’s beautiful, and sometimes terrifying, but always trustworthy, adjacent possible? I intend to find out, for that is my Lenten prayer.


Monday, February 27, 2017

A Transfiguring Touch

A Transfiguring Touch
Text:  Matthew 17:1-8
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 2-26-2017)

The season of Lent arrives around this time, every year on the heels of the Transfiguration story. In that strange story, no sooner do Jesus, Peter, James, and John make it up the mountain then Jesus’ face starts to shine. Then, more than his face, Jesus’ entire body is transfigured, in the Greek, is metamorphisized, by God.
It is one thing to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” when Jesus is someone much like us, a person we can relate to, someone who laughs and cries, who occasionally loses his temper and raises his voice. It is quite another thing to make sense of an eerie, glowing Jesus, who looks not like he has seen a ghost, but who looks like a ghost himself.    
Read on and the story only gets stranger. Just as Peter and the Zebedee boys set sights on the transfigured Jesus do the time travelers Moses and Elijah arrive. Peter tries to bring some reason to the surreal setting by offering accommodations for everyone. It is the first concrete, common sense  thing that has happened since the boys went up the mountain.

Before anyone can book a room or pitch a tent, though, a cloud, a deep fog, sets in and the scene shifts from sight to sound. A voice from above declares, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
The three disciples, who earlier felt privileged to be the only ones among the twelve to go with Jesus into Jairus’s house and are the only three invited up the mountain, now feel terrified. There is something about the voice of God throughout Scripture that brings people to their knees.
And if not strange enough already, what happens next strikes perhaps the oddest note in the entire story. The whiter-than-white-face-shining-like-an-angel-fully-transcendent-no-one-like-we have-ever-known Jesus reaches down to this terrified trio, touches them, and tells them to: “Get up and do not be afraid.”  
Neither Mark nor Luke say a word about Jesus touching anyone on the mountain; for them, Jesus is transfigured, transcendent, untouchable. For Matthew, though, whether standing transfigured on this mountain with Peter, James, and John or later risen from the tomb and standing on the mountain with all his disciples, Jesus never stops being “Emmanuel,” God with us, a God who is never too distant to enter our fear or too aloof to soothe our worried brows.    
 I said earlier that Lent arrives on the heels of this story. Actually, for most people today, Lent does not arrive at all. Unlike Christmas – a key economic engine of the American economy – Lent has little commercial value.  We can quite easily ignore this season and most people do. Even in the church, many skip Lent and avoid all the tough texts ahead, ones that speak of Jesus coming down the mountain and walking right into the heart of darkness in Gethsemane and finally in Golgotha.   
I would suggest that this is not a good year for anyone to skip Lent. There is way too much fear in the air. It is tangible and it is devastating and it is everywhere you turn. For our first several months at Cove, Jennell and I lived atop Afton mountain where fog is a regular guest. We would often wake to find ourselves surrounded by a vast, natural, cotton ball of fog. If someone were to ask us, “Just where is the fog exactly?” my response would be: “It is everywhere you turn.” That is the way it is with fear today – it is everywhere we turn.
Some fear an assault from radical Islamist terrorists. Some fear a federal assault on the earth and air and water. Some fear a press that is out of control. Some fear an administration that is out of control. Some fear that the chemo will not work. Some fear that sobriety is about to end. Some fear that the sands of time are slipping through the glass too quickly. Some fear that they will never be old enough to be taken seriously. Some fear that we are approaching a nuclear winter. Some fear that they will never be forgiven. Some fear that they will never be able to forgive. Fear is everywhere we turn.
Fear shuts us off and shuts us down. It isolates us and insulates us from others who may be in pain. Fear gives us permission to be ugly and to shout obscenities and to send eviscerating emails. Fear is a malignant tumor that eventually will kill you, kill the church, kill the nation.
It is no accident that the two most popular words in Scripture are “fear not.” These two words are not spoken by enlightened humans who have assessed the situation and then decided, with FDR, that “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.” These are words spoken by God, again and again in Scripture, and precisely in those times when there is every reason to be afraid. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus not only speaks these two words of comfort, he puts his arms around his friends; he touches them in their time of overwhelming fear.
 In just three days, on Ash Wednesday, we will gather here again at noon to worship God and to be marked with ashes. We will come into this sanctuary, fears and all. We will once again be reminded that “from dust we come and from dust we shall return.” A big black ashy smudge on our foreheads will be a telling sign to the world that death is not optional. As we feel the ashes touch our foreheads, we will also be reminded of the God who brings life out of death, even death on the cross.
For the past couple of years, two of my young colleagues at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and I would put on our pulpit robes, get our ashes ready, and head to the nearby campus of Georgia State University and to the nearby MARTA station. We were an odd sight by our robes alone, but even more so by the sign we carried that read:  “Get Your Ashes Here.”
Some people would pass us by much like I often pass by a homeless person who is holding a sign on the street corner. Some would engage our eyes, smile, and walk right by us. A surprisingly number of students and even some busy transit riders would stop and ask for ashes. Many would preface it by saying, “Now, I’m not religious, but this couldn’t hurt.”  
When we walked back to the church, we were met by a large crowd of men lining up to get into the Central Night Shelter. They were ready for us. I nearly ran out of ashes, with Shelter guest after Shelter guest asking if they could be marked with the cross. They not only asked for ashes, but they asked us to pray for them and more than a few tears fell along weathered cheeks. A few of the guests told me that this was the first time someone had touched them in months. Then I joined them in the weeping. God was present in this holy touch in a way that I cannot begin to explain.

Maybe that is the invitation of the strange Transfiguration story, to come down off the mountain, to come out of our safe sanctuaries, and to go where people are cowering in fear and to touch them with a holy touch. Not to shout them down. Not to shut them up. Not to pass them by, but to listen to them, to embrace them, and by our presence to assure them that they need not live in fear.  
Ready or not, Lent is almost here with all its stories of betrayal and entrapment, denial and death. But on Wednesday, whenever you splash water on your face to wash away the ashy smudge that was imposed on your forehead, remember that there is no cleansing agent strong enough to wash away the transfiguring touch of the One who loves us and who leads us out of the dark shadow of fear by word and by touch.    
May God grant you and yours a holy Lent!