Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Day of the Lord: Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall


The Day of the Lord
Texts: 1 Thess 4:13-16; Amos 5:18-24
            Autumn is my favorite time of year.  I love the cool, crisp air, the beauty of the changing colors, and the smell of burning leaves.  And while it is always a busy time of year for me as a professor, the shortening days, the seeming stillness in the air, gives me pause to reflect, to think about the echoes of falls past.  When I take time to meditate and breathe, I find myself in awe and wonder at the passing of time itself.  When I have a few moments to relax, sometimes I might put on my earphones and listen to a symphony like Brahm’s first, or any number of Bach’s works, or to a fine jazz musician.   I find myself wondering at their artistic reflections on time, while I listen to the beats and rhythms, both slow and fast, and watch the shadows grow long as autumn afternoon transitions into eve.
          Both of the biblical texts we read today are in their own way reflections on time and the human inability to comprehend it.  In the Amos passage, the prophet is warning the people of Israel who are looking forward to the “day of the Lord,” envisioning that day as a day of triumph and vindication, likely over their Assyrian enemies.  Instead the prophet turns their expectation on its head.  The Day of the Lord will not be a day of vindication, but a day of judgment for Israel’s neglect of the poor and the widows and others in their society, while prioritizing expensive shows of flashy worship.       In the 1 Thess text, Paul is correcting the Thessalonians misunderstanding about grief and loss.  In Paul’s early congregations, people were expecting Christ to return at any moment.  Apparently they hadn’t given any thought to what would happen to those who pass away before Christ’s return.  They were now concerned about those who passed away, that they had somehow missed their opportunity for seeing the eschaton, that they would be lost forever to the sands of time.  This was clearly compounding their grief for their lost loved ones.  Paul does not tell them not to grieve.  Instead, he comforts them by assuring them in a grief abiding in hope.  “Soon,” he tells the Thessalonians, “Christ would return and on that day, the dead in Christ would rise first and those of us who remain would rise up into the heavens to meet them.”  For Paul and the Thessalonians, the Day of the Lord meant resurrection and reunion, reunion with lost loved ones, union with the returning savior—and the entire transformation of all creation.
          You see, both Amos and Paul are correcting our misperceptions of time.  Because of our human limitations, we have only an inkling of the true nature of time.  Only in the past century, since Einstein, have we become aware that time itself is not a constant, but is relative.  For those who travel at high speed, time passes--imperceptibly to all but the most accurate of clocks—a little more slowly in relation to those who are not travelling so quickly.  Psychologists also tell us that the human perception of time shifts as we age, as time seems to pass more quickly for those of us who are older, than it does for the youth.  Can you remember the times when you as children waited in the wee hours of Christmas morning for time to pass before opening presents?  Or can you remember how long time seemed to drag on before the dismissal bell at school?   I can see it in the faces of my students when I teach.  Fifty minutes seems for them an eternity—and for this aging scholar that time is only the passing of an instant.  Of course, one constant that never changes is the allotment of time for a preacher’s sermon.  It doesn’t matter how old the congregation member it is, the preacher always preaches too long, am I right?
          But the Day of the Lord that both these texts refer to, that is another matter altogether.  While in the human experience of time, the days may seem to blend together, and one day may seem to be very much like another, there are certain days in which everything, all of history, seems to shift.  Many of us can remember that fateful fall morning in September when two airliners crashed in the World Trade Center.  
For me and my experience, this day today, Nov. 9, also is an important day in history.  On Nov. 9, 25 years ago, the Berlin wall opened, allowing East Germans to travel freely into West Berlin.  With the opening of the Berlin wall, the entire communist block of Eastern Europe unraveled, as nation after nation transformed into capitalistic economies with parliamentary style democracies.  It was a transformational day for millions of people in Eastern Europe and as a young college student studying German at the time, I was glued to the television set, watching as the wall came down.  I couldn’t wait to get to Berlin and was thrilled the following summer to be present for the day of economic unification, when all the shops in East Berlin transformed overnight, reopening the next day with Western goods in the aisles for the first time and accepting only West German money.  I can remember strolling through the aisles of the largest East Berlin department store on Alexanderplatz, eavesdropping on a young couple looking at the jeans and other western apparel.  I can remember the young woman saying to her husband, “but I don’t like the jeans; this just is not my style,” and her husband saying in an authoritative voice, “but you have to buy it, dear, that is the now expectation for everyone to wear.”  Apparently they hadn’t quite learned that capitalistic consumer mentality of demanding choice.   I remember another patron in the store paying for his items and when he received East German coins back as change, he threw them back at the poor cashier.  On the day of economic reunification, the banks and shops had only been able to change out the bills, but the Eastern German coinage would remain in circulation for several months, because it took time for new coins to be minted. 
          You see, those fateful days in 1989 and 1990, changed the world in dramatic ways.  There is slim chance that I and my wife, who was born and grew up in Czechoslovakia, would never have met, if it had not been for the actions of the one boarder guard at the Berlin wall who in a somewhat impulsive moment of disobeying the orders of his superiors, decided to open the border crossing to the swelling crowds of protestors who had gathered before his gate to West Berlin.
          Later, in 1992, after finishing college, I went back to East Berlin to live and work among the pastors who had been instrumental in the 10 year ecumenical process of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation to bring about change and renewal in their congregations and communities.  You see, this is where I received my real theological training, working with pastors for whom the Amos text we read today meant so much, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream.”  We all live for those transformational days like Nov. 9th when all of history changes.  But such transformational moments are often the product of years of and years of quiet, unseen patient work. 
          The results of such transformational days reflect the character of the slow and steady work in preparing for them.  Sometimes they are positive, like in 1989 when the Berlin wall fell.  However, many years earlier, in 1938, Nov. 9 represented something darker and far more sinister for Germany,  the Kristallnacht, the day the Nazis had been preparing for year, the day that marks the formal beginning of the Holocaust.   Individually, we too can all remember important days, when we are baptized, married, when children were born, or when loved ones passed away.  But these momentous shifts in time only occur only after periods of preparation.
          Like Paul’s congregants or Amos’ audience in Israel, we long for these transformational days, without really knowing exactly what they might bring.  What both Paul and Amos agree upon is that such transformative days in history belong to God and not us. We as humans are too frail to comprehend the changes such days might bring; and often are quite incapable of coping with their aftermath.  Indeed, much of our corporate culture is centered around such “days of the Lord.”  Corporations large and small are looking for the next ipad, iphone, or Google, the next “revolutionary” product that will transform stale businesses into competitive, thriving enterprises.  Many of them have entire divisions dedicated to research and development, hoping to come up with the “next big thing.”  Nonprofits, even small ones like the educational institution in which I serve, have administrators who are looking for breakaway strategies, and transformational donors, people who can come in and make such a substantial gift to the institution that it will stand out from among its peers.  Yes, church, I submit to you today, that many of us are looking for that “Day of the Lord.”  But let us take Amos’ caution and Paul’s word of comfort to heart.  Amos says, “Let Justice Flow down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  Our task is to fill the waters, the everflowing stream of time, with moments of purpose in service to God’s justice, this justice that is written in our hearts and that we know is part of the very structure of the universe.  Shortly before the verses we read today, Paul tells the Thessalonians to live quietly, mind their own affairs, and to work with their hands—and they will see soon, very soon, the Lord coming together with those loved ones who have passed away.  We are reminded that what we do in the day-to-day matters, whether it is giving time to listen to someone who is distraught, or taking time to mentor a disadvantaged child.  You see folks, we can’t say when the Day of the Lord is coming. We don’t know when that transformational day might take place; but we can live meaningful lives by minding God’s justice in our day-to-day.  While it is true that the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9th, that transformational day was prepared for by pastors throughout East Germany for almost a decade, as they formed small groups dedicated to issues of justice, peace, and ecological vitality.  Sometimes those groups were small, as small as this little congregation gathered here, because all of this had to be done under the watchful eye of the East German authorities.  But they did it nonetheless, patiently meeting week in and week out, providing in their congregations spaces for open conversation and discussion about God’s justice and how this justice looked so different from their experience behind the iron curtain.  Gradually this movement began to grow, from a handful of pastors and dedicated congregation members, to thousands who would meet in the churches for prayers for peace and justice, light candles and silently, peacefully, march out into the streets of Leipzig, Berlin, and throughout East Germany to protest injustice and pray for peace and justice.  You see, real change, God’s authentic change, comes from the margins through daily, quiet, and patient dedication to gentle acts of kindness and fearless dedication to justice and righteousness, all grounded in God’s worship—subsumed  in God’s time. 

          I know we all long for the day of the Lord.  I am here to proclaim to you that God’s time is our time—and the full dimension of that time are so much beyond our imagination.  But if, on an autumn day, you are able to stop and listen for just a moment, perhaps you can hear the heartbeat of God’s Justice, the rhythm of God’s righteous deep in our bones.  The day of the Lord is coming. The early Christians opened and ended their worship with the words, “Maranatha,” which means, “Come, Lord, Come.”  May the Peace of Christ be with all of you on this, the Day of the Lord.       

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hostesses with the Mostest: Mother's Day Sermon, 2014

Mother’s Day Sermon 2014
“The Hostesses with the Mostest: Images of Maternal Hospitality 
Acts 2:41-47
41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
            Blessings upon all of you and Happy Mother’s day!  It is certainly a joy for me to be here this morning and I’m especially grateful for the connections this congregation has had to Pfeiffer University through the year, through all the Pfeiffer grads you’ve employed over the years, and now by sharing Mike and Donna with us.  We are truly thankful for congregations such as this and am pleased to have been asked to preach here this Sunday on such a special day. 
            When I looked up the lectionary text for this Sunday, I was quite surprised and pleased to see that it was the text on which I wrote my dissertation.  This text only comes around in the lectionary every three years, so imagine my delight at seeing it for today.  When Sherri Barnes, our director of church relations, found out I was preaching on this text, she already began praying for you.  I don’t know why.  My dissertation was rather short, only 230 or so pages and my defense didn’t last but 2 hours.  So I’m sure we can get out of here by 2PM.
            All joking aside, this text paints a portrait of the early Christian community in Jerusalem within only months of Jesus’ ascension.  It’s a lovely picture, just like the pictures of smiling graduates we posted on facebook yesterday.  Everything is perfect, abounding promise.  The church at this point is experiencing great joy, growing by leaps and bounds, sharing all their possessions, sharing meals together, worshipping with great joy and warmth, and caring, growing by teaching, studying, and listening to the Apostles, and even speaking bold truths to the community around it.  It is a picture not only of what the church was, but of what it could be, maybe even what it should be.  It is about the kinds of distinctive friendship we practice in Christian community, sharing our possessions across class and status lines, speaking bold, difficult and life-transformative truths to a broken world around us, and, yes, sharing acts of radical hospitality. 
            Since it is mother’s day, I thought I’d focus a little on this distinctive friendship practice, the practice of hospitality, that which so many of our mothers know so much about, especially if they practice the more traditional roles of nurturing and preparing meals.  And, since it is mother’s day, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on my own mother, as many of us are today.  My mom passed away about a year and half ago.  And in her waning years, my mother struggled some with a light dementia, as so many of us do as we age.  But one gift of hospitality my mother left for us was a spiritual journal in which she reflected about her life.  It was something you can sometimes find in a Christian bookstore, a hardbound volume that asks someone to reflect on their upbringing, their life, their experiences, something that a mother would want her children to keep and reflect on after she passed away.  Now my mom wasn’t so talkative as the dementia set in.  But one way to get her talking and thinking about the past was to read this spiritual journal with her.  And I remember one section, a section in which she was had written about her father, a deeply Christian man.  You see my mother lost her own mother at a very young age and my grandfather was a widower, having to take care of four children during the depression.  But he was determined to raise them in a home that was actively evangelical.  Evangelicalism at that time, at least in the North, in Philadelphia where my mom grew up, meant also having what we call today a social conscience.  So my mom wrote in her diary about how, during the depression, my grandfather took the four children every Sunday to downtown Philadelphia to hand out sandwiches and coffee to the homeless.  And I can still remember, months before she passed, asking my mom about this and her telling me, reverting back into the accepted language of her youth, “Oh, those bums loved Dad, and he loved them right back.”  Hospitality, radical hospitality.  As I’ve told that story in different contexts, folks have shared with me how in the depression, their parents would take in the homeless men who were wandering from place to place, or share with them a meal.  One woman whose family lived on a farm during the depression told me how her mother always set an extra place at the table for hungry strangers.  That was part of the depression era mentality, I guess.  But whatever happened to that radical practice of hospitality.
            I suspect that many of us tend to find hospitality hard because it requires us to be vulnerable.  I know I’m in Andy Griffith country, so I can’t preach a sermon without some kind of reference to that show.  I’m sure you all remember the character of Aunt Bee, who by the way, isn’t herself a mother, but certainly seems to fill that role in Andy’s atypical family.  She’s always preparing or doing for others and yet so often you see in her face a certain vulnerability.  When we open ourselves to radical hospitality, when we share with the stranger, with the other, sometimes we have to be prepared to be hurt.  I recall one show where Aunt Bee picks up with an elderly widower who was a suitor from her past.  As the show progresses, Andy gradually comes to have suspicions that this gentleman caller isn’t exactly what he claims to be, and is instead after Aunt Bee’s money.  One show after another, the plot revolves around Aunt Bee’s good natured hospitality being potentially taken advantage of by a stranger—and Andy has to find a solution without hurting Aunt Bee or shaming her dignity.
            You see, there’s a double sided risk to hospitality.  On the one hand, the host has to risk his or her own vulnerability with the possibility of being taken advantage of, all while trying to make sure that the guest’s vulnerabilities are protected and dignified.  And this is the character trait we honor during mothers day.  Those of you who are mothers know what it means to be exhausted beyond exhaustion in caring for the family around you—and yet you still give.  And all of us have mothers and know what its like to have had our needs met while also retaining a sense of dignity and self-worth in the process. And that’s what mothers do best, they give us all the dignity and self-worth that they can possibly give.  They meet us in the depths of our vulnerability, without making us feel unworthy, even though we couldn’t possibly do anything to earn or merit their love.  That radical practice of hospitality is a virtue that we can all engage in, regardless of our gender or status in the family and community.
            Again and again we see examples of radical hospitality in Acts.  As the church grows, we learn of an incident in chapter six in which the Hellenists complained that their widows were being “passed over” in the daily distribution of meals.  We learn two things from this passage.  First, that the church continues in its ministry of hospitality.  Furthermore, this ministry of hospitality seems to be vital for the survival of various ethnic and class groups in the congregation.  People need these meals and the church is sharing them.  Secondly, it would appear the Hellenist’s widows are being “passed over” in this act of hospitality.  Recent scholars looking at this text have demonstrated that the male scholars who have been interpreting this text throughout the years have mistranslated the word “passed-over.”  The widows are not mad because they aren’t getting food distributed to them, they’re mad because their ability to engage in acts hospitality is being “passed-over” by the dominant ethnic faction in the church.  What this means is that women were playing a key role in the survival of the ancient church, they were providing the hospitality the not only functioned as a social glue—we all connect over meals—but also was keeping vulnerable members in the church alive.  The church could not have survived without this ministry and these mothers certainly must have had honored roles in this community. 
Think of the story of Dorcas, also known as Tabitha, in chapter nine.  Her ministry was making clothes. When Peter gets to Joppa, he is rushed first thing to Dorcas’ household where he finds a group of women who lived and worked with her holding up the garments she and the women of her household were making for the poor in their community.  This too is an act of hospitality.  Clothing protects the dignity of the vulnerable.  Yesterday, it was such a joy to watch the “mothers” of our faculty help those of us who are less inclined in straightening out ours and our students’ caps, and gowns, and hoods.  Yes, hospitality.  Later on in Acts, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man calling him to come over to Europe and spread his ministry there.  But when he arrives in Philippi, who does he find but Lydia, a wealthy merchant from Thyatira?  Whose house do you think he stays in that night?  Time and again we find in Acts mothers and mother figures whose hospitality is vitally important to spreading the ministry of the church.   
            I could go on and on, but I guess what I want to call you to do, as we reflect on and honor our mothers, is to think about how and where you might be able to engage in a radical act of hospitality.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It is in small acts of kindness, the kinds of acts that our mothers do quietly, thanklessly, day in and day out that we find the best practice of hospitality.  These are the kinds of quiet, unrecognized acts that build community, one piece at a time.  Jean Vanier is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers.  He is the founder of the international L’Arche movement, a movement that creates intentional communities where people with mental disabilities live, work, and worship with those who are more abled.  I want to close this sermon with his words today, as I think it shows us that the practice of maternal hospitality is something we can all engage in. 
“A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of a person is to accept insignificance, the human condition and the earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness. The beauty of humanity is in this fidelity to the wonder of each day.” 

Are you ready to embrace community?  Are you ready to embrace acts of hospitality each day?  Are you ready to embrace the wonder of each day?  

Sunday, May 12, 2013


Mother's Day Sermon


Going Forth By Staying Put


Acts 16:16-34


According to the bureau of labor statistics, American mothers are busy people. On an average day, full time working American mothers with children 12 and under spend about an hour per day playing, reading, and talking with their children, about 1 ½ hours providing primary physical care, almost 2 hours in travelling back and forth, picking them up and dropping them off for ball games, church activities, and other organized time. That’s all on top of career expectations, trying to keep healthy and stay fit, being active and involved in church, caring for aging parents, and balancing relationships with spouses, family members, coworkers, and friends. Mothers are truly busy folks. It is no wonder, then, that according to the American Psychological Association, women (28%) are more likely than men (%20) to report high levels of stress, with 54% of married American women reporting that in the last month that they had incidents in which they were likely to cry, %52 percent reporting that they felt irritable or angry, 49% reporting that they had lain awake at least one night, and 48% that they had stress headaches, and 47% experiencing fatigue—all in the last month. Money and work are the most common factors for stress, according to the APA, but I imagine other factors such as concern for our families, the business of our lives, and other pressures build upon us as well. We are busy folks, and it is likely that our mothers know this better than the rest of us. Many mothers understand that their calling and work is to be missionaries to their own families, to serve and nurture, and stand by their families in the day to day, in times of joy and the times of need.

So we come together on this one day a year to celebrate mother’s day and reflect about what Scripture might have to say, not only to our mothers, but to all of us, as we try to balance work and family schedules, serve as faithful members to our churches and communities, and take care of elderly parents and friends in need. And it is hard, isn’t it, because the Bible seems to speak to another time and another place, and may not speak to the kinds of anxieties and stresses that we have today. However, as I was preparing for today, I felt like these two incidents from Acts really can speak to us, especially as we think about what it means to be missional in our everyday lives. Now some of us have been on mission trips. Others spend time in community service or doing local ministries. In a real sense, when we go to another country to build a church, or when we go to a local homeless shelter to feed the poor, we are learning what it means to be missional. But what I think today’s stories tell us is that being missional doesn’t always mean going to exotic countries or serving people who are in extraordinary situations. Sometimes, if we pay attention to what God is doing in our midst, being missional means recognizing what God is doing right where we are and allowing ourselves to be the conduits through which God is going to act.

This is what’s going on in these two stories in Acts. In the first story, Paul and Silas are in the city of Philippi ministering and witnessing to the people there when, day after day, they encounter a young slave-girl who was possessed by a spirit of divination. Apparently this spirit gave her the ability to tell the future and reveal secrets—and her slave-masters used this girl to make a profit from those who would seek out her services. Anyway, whenever this slave girl saw Paul and others going to the place of prayer outside Philippi, she would cry out “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Of course, the irony in this text is profound. Here, a girl who is enslaved not only to an evil spirit, but also to human masters who are exploiting her for profit, is proclaiming Paul and his company to be slaves. Anyway, regardless of her status, Paul found her caterwauling particularly annoying, so he turns around and casts the demon out of her in the name of Christ Jesus. The owners of this girl don’t take too kindly to this, because their ability to make a profit is lost. So, the irony of this event is that Paul’s act of liberation for the woman, leads to his and Silas’ own enslavement, due to pressure by the slave-girl’s owners.

The next episode in this little story is in the jail of Philippi, where Paul and Silas have been put in stocks in the innermost cell. While Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, there is a tremendous earthquake, so profound that everyone’s stocks, chains, and doors are opened and the prisoners have the opportunity to get free. When the Macedonian jailor enters into his prison to see all the doors open, he draws his sword to kill himself, thinking that his career and his livelihood are over. However, Paul calls out to him to say that they are all there. Astonished by this, the jailor asked to be saved by the same power that has saved Paul and Silas, the same powerful God that freed the Macedonian slave girl. This then becomes the opportunity for Paul to witness to the jailor and his family--and that very night the jailor’s entire family is baptized.

One of the really interesting facets of these stories is that Paul and Silas don’t really do much special in order to be missional. Especially in the second episode, all Paul and Silas really do is stay put, rather than running away, when God provides them an opportunity to witness to the Philippian jailor. And really, in the first story, with the slave-girl, Paul doesn’t set out to do anything special. He is just so annoyed by her following them around and screams them that he basically just turns around and yells at the spirit within her and orders it to come out. So, I guess what I’m trying to say, when I look at these examples, we don’t really need to engage in huge projects, special events, and fancy ministries to be missional. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against mission trips and service projects. I think programs and special events in churches are great. But being missional is more about one’s attitude, one’s day to day practices than it is about international trips and mountaintop experiences. When Paul and Silas are in the prison in Philippi, they are doing missional work simply by staying put.

So often churches think that the more programs they offer, the larger and more splendid their facilities are, that they are doing more and more the missional work of God. But look, Paul and Silas were just walking through the streets down to a clearing by the river, when God gave them an opportunity to touch this slave-girl’s life. Paul didn’t need a program or a budget or a building to be missional. Paul didn’t need a degree or a committee to study the matter. He just got annoyed and turned around and cast out the demon that was inside of that girl. Now, I know what some of you working mothers are thinking: does that mean it is OK to turn around when I’m driving my annoying kid from baseball practice and shout at them to high heavens. Well, I’m not so sure about that. The point is that Paul and Silas looked for the moment that God was giving them. Sometimes a confrontation with a neighbor or coworker may lead to their liberation from something that is enslaving them. But you have to use discernment to know whether God is in that moment or not. I think also that Paul and Silas must have used discernment to realize that the earthquake that had led to their freedom was also an opportunity for them to spread the Gospel.

You see, in the midst of our hectic and stress-filled lives, being missional is about finding those in-between moments when God is giving us an opportunity to transform lives, whether those be the lives of our children, our coworkers, or even strangers we might meet. You see, I suspect that God does not want to burden us with more stress. You see, God does not need our committee assignments, and church programs, and a myriad of other activities to show God’s power. If we become aware of it, God is offering us moments every day where God is going to do real and transformative missionary work through us. Sometimes, mothers, that may mean taking a moment at the stoplight on the way to soccer practice to say a little prayer with your children. Sometimes, it may mean offering an agitated and stressed out parent at that soccer practice your ear for a few minutes so that they can vent and cry. Sometimes, for those of us who are retired or off of work and may have a little more time, it may mean allowing that stressed out mother with a toddler to have your place in line at the supermarket. Sometimes, parents, it may mean keeping the faith and continuing to address a destructive or potentially addictive habit that your teenager has taken on. It is wondrous to read in the story of the Philippian jailor that, before Paul baptized him and his family, the jailor washed Paul’s wounds. For some of us, it could be that being missional means allowing a stranger to wash our wounds, whether that’s allowing a friend to speak an encouraging word, or asking someone for their blessing, when we’re having a particularly difficult or stressful day.

I recognize that mother’s day can be a difficult day for some of us. Some among us may have never been blessed with the opportunity to be mothers. Others among us may have lost their children, whether through accidents, or illness, miscarriage, or even war. And still others, like myself, have lost our mothers recently. So, while today is a great day to celebrate those of us who are mothers, I think it important to keep in mind, that through Christ, we are all offered opportunities to be mothers to one another. Paul tells the Thessalonians that he sees himself as their mother, their nursemaid in Christ, and yet when he is far away from them, he feels orphaned. So in our community and our faith life, God is giving us opportunities every day to be missional, to be mothers to one another, and to be mothered by one another. Church, I hope and pray for you that you will take the opportunity that God is showing you and be a mother to someone in need in the days and weeks ahead. If you do, maybe it will become a habit for you—and you’ll know what its like to be a missionary, without having to go anywhere at all.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


I know its been a long time since I posted.  I thought I'd post a sermon I am preaching tomorrow.  Maybe it will give someone comfort.

Rev. 7:9-17;
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,
"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen."
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" 14 I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

This has been a tough week for Americans.  On Monday, we witnessed the horror and images of the explosions and mayhem at the Boston marathon.  Then, as the week progressed, more news came about an explosion that rocked the small town of West, Texas. Finally, as the week drew to a close, more news about shootouts, manhunts, and finally the discovery, capture and arrest of the perpetrators of the horrific crime in Boston.  Whether at a large international sporting event at Boston, or at a small, sleepy rural town, Americans had their world shaken this week, a week unlike few others since 9/11.  Now, with our 24/7 news cycle and the constant updates and wash of opinions through Twitter and Facebook, all of us can share in the trauma, anxiety and fear.  Even though only a few of us are directly impacted by these events, many more are experiencing these events through connections and social networks.  So, collectively, we experience shock and trauma, as we are reminded of the loss and brokenness that many of us and our families have known in the past.
            This week, through Scripture, we are given the imagery of sheep and shepherds.  Israel was a herding nation.  Living in the Judean hill country, sheep herding, and the growing of olives and grapes, were some of the main ways folks could make a living.  The hill country was rugged terrain, unsuitable for large scale farming of grains that one might find in Northern Israel or in the Transjordan.  So the people of Israel knew sheep and idolized the herding culture.  At least since David, the image of the shepherd had become associated with leadership.  The shepherd symbols of leadership persist today.  Bishops carry a shepherd’s staff, with the straight end designed to prod sheep along and the hooked end designed to pull them back from danger.  Being a shepherd was hard and dirty work, and often dangerous, alone in the country, sometimes at night, protecting sheep from wild animals or poachers.  A shepherd often had to rely on his wits and cunning to keep his flock safe, fed, and watered.  On the other hand, a shepherd often had large amounts of time alone with his sheep (and maybe his dog), time to reflect, whittle, sing, or practice his pipe or lute.   
            So for Israel, the image of the shepherd is one of a leader, and as we see reflected in Psalm 23, one of comforter and protector, an image associated with Israel’s God.  God provides us fresh water in still streams and provides us green pastures upon which to feed and sleep, leads us through dangerous valleys, and feeds us.   God’s guiding rod and staff protect.   In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus applying the image of the shepherd to himself.  Those of us who are Jesus’ sheep know his voice and we follow him.  No robber or evil shepherd can snatch us away from Jesus the shepherd, for we are safe under Christ’s watch. 
You see the dynamics of herding is an amazing thing to watch from afar.  My wife is from Slovakia, another mountainous region, where the sheep herding culture is not only part of the mythic imagination, it is something you can witness in everyday life.  Sometimes in the summer, when we are visiting the mountain villages surrounding my wife’s home town, one can look up at the hills and see shepherds slowly moving their flock through the pastures.  I imagine, up close, to my untrained eye, it would seem like chaos and confusion, with shouting and mewing, sheep bells ringing, and sheep going this direction and that.  But it is an amazing thing to watch from the distance, because although there may be dozens and dozens of sheep, from a distance it appears that they are moving as one, like one flexing and stretching organism along the hills.
These images of sheep and shepherds are compelling in a week when it seems like we are a flock that has been scattered and set astray, where each sheep is going in its own direction in terror and fear, ducking and covering from real and metaphorical explosions.  In a week like this, I wonder whether our experience isn’t more akin to that of the original audience of the seer’s Revelation.  You see the audience of the apocalypse had this experience that they were living in the end of times.  Many of the churches in Asia Minor listed at the beginning of the book had undergone recent persecution at the end of the first century.  These were folks who knew what it was to live in terror, to live in fear that their neighbors might turn them in for believing in this new-fangled religion that worshipped only one God and proclaimed a crucified criminal to be God’s resurrected King.  These were folks who had seen fellow believers arrested, even martyred.  Others were confronted regularly with the temptations of wealth and luxury, still others were surrounded by pagan idols and false gods whom friends and family members still worshipped.  These believers in Asia Minor were composed likely of small house churches in major urban centers, and their makeup was largely of slaves and other low status people.  If ever there was a people who felt like scattered sheep and who needed a word of comfort, it was the audience John of Patmos was writing to.   And the vivid imagery of Revelation does not disappoint.  Its mix of symbol and imagery enlivens the imagination and senses.  It is designed chiefly to provide comfort to a people whose senses have been overloaded. 
 This is where we find ourselves in Revelation 7:9-17.  We join the seer as he looks around and sees a great multitude, countless people from all the nations, standing around the throne of the lamb.  Now this is a powerful image; and I guess the image that comes most readily to mind is that of the Boston Marathon.  According to the Boston Athletic Association, this marathon provided the widest spectrum of humanity now possible, with over 23,000 people to run, you had people running from age 18 on up, with almost 50 runners in their late seventies and eighties, over 50 people in wheel chairs, and about 80 people with visual or mobility impairments.    Runners came from 54 US states and territories, and representatives from over 80 nations!  Get that picture in your mind and I think you have something similar to John’s vision.  Except in John’s visions, instead of running, all of these peoples from all over the world are praising and worshipping the lamb who is sitting on his throne.  
What do we learn about these people?  The seer learns that they have gone through a terrible ordeal, and “they have washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb.”  This is a profound and ironic image.  It is one we can relate to especially in a week like this one.  Many bystanders at the Boston bombing commented on the blood in the street, that so many had lost legs and limbs from the bombs, that the bombs were intentionally build to cause injury and harm through the inclusion of nails and bb-s as shrapnel.  I can’t even imagine the horror.   Yet John’s vision here functions in a completely opposite manner.  Of course robes washed in blood would be expected to be stained in red.  Yet through the blood of this lamb, the robes are made white.  Here the author is using ironic symbolism.  The blood of the lamb represents Christ’s sacrificial death.  The image here is of temple sacrifice, in which the blood represents the covenant that is sealed between humans and God.  Ironically, this blood does not stain the robes of the worshippers.  It does quite the opposite.  It cleanses and purifies them.  It makes them white. The same ironic symbolism us being used at the end of the chapter,  when the lamb at the center of the throne becomes the shepherd who will lead this international mass of people to living waters.  Here we see a complete transposition of roles.  The baby sheep, the vulnerable lamb, becomes the powerful guiding shepherd.
At the heart of these symbols, the blood of the lamb that washes the robes white, the vulnerable baby sheep that becomes the shepherd of all people on earth, is the irony of the cross.  And you see, this is where we find the good news of this text for our fearful and hectic lives.  In Christ, we recognize that God’s power functions through powerlessness.  We believe in a God that has the power to take nothingness and make something out of it, to take the bitter shameful defeat of the cross and make out of it a cosmic victory for life over death.  You see, the message of the cross is that our God exists in the very human weakness, frailty, and powerlessness that we experience in our lives and bodies every day.  And that is the overwhelming Good News of the Gospel.  A parent may be helpless as he or she watches a dying child in a hospital bed, a person with a grave illness or disability may feel utterly broken and helpless, we may cry to the heavens when we lose a spouse, or child, parent, or sibling.  Yet the good news of the Gospel is that Christ is risen from the dead, the first-fruits of the resurrection.  God has achieved the ultimate victory over death and the forces of evil that try to strike terror in our lives.  Folks, like the saints in John’s end-time vision, we too can go through great ordeals and still wash our robes to see them gleaming white in Christ’s blood.   When we experience the ordeals, the terror, the loss, we know that Christ has already achieved the ultimate victory and that soon, any time now, we will join in singing heavenly praises to the lamb.  As Paul says, Christ’s power is perfected through weakness.  Yes, and that means that the weak and frail lamb is an all-powerful comforting shepherd.  There is nothing in our bodies too frail, there is no one in our community too weak, nothing in our lives so broken that Christ through the cross and resurrection can transform it into newness, eternity, and life.  Whatever your fears, whatever your brokenness, whatever trials or ordeals you are going through, I invite you today to wash them in this little lambs blood.  Saints, you will experience cleansing.  Brothers and sisters, we will experience life together in God’s beloved community.  When we are feeling lost and scattered.  When we are feeling confused and bewildered, heavenly multitude from all over the earth, we will find our shepherd.  And that shepherd is ready to lead.  My brother and sister sheep, are we ready to follow that shepherd?  Are we ready to drink from the waters of life?  Are we ready to hunger and thirst no more?   Are we ready to have every tear wiped away from our eyes?
If you are, all you have to do is follow that shepherd.  Be scattered no more, for we know his voice and he knows us as his sheep.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Comments on North Carolina Amendment One

While driving in the car today, I heard that Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham weighed in on the North Carolina amendment against gay marriage. I respect these North Carolina natives.  As a Christian, I treasure much of the work they have both done for God's kingdom.  However, their statements sadden me, not so much because of the politics that I don't agree with, but because of how they use the Bible to support their position.  As a Biblical scholar and a professing Christian, it saddens me to see these men, who are generally regarded as statesmen of the faith, misusing a book I have devoted my life to teaching and studying.  Instead of using this as an opportunity to share a Biblical word of comfort, reconciliation, or even a prophetic word against dehumanizing prejudice, these men used their prominent positions to once again confirm the media's image of Christians, their God, and their Bible as petty and mean-spirited.

Gay marriage is already illegal in North Carolina.  The amendment states that "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."  As many have argued, the amendment is superfluous and so broadly written that legally recognized domestic unions would also be illegal.  I suppose you could use parts of the Bible to back the idea of a perspective claiming to be the "Biblical view on marriage." But why on earth would you want to force that one very narrow perspective on all the citizens of a pluralistic democracy like our own?  Only a few months ago, many Christian conservatives used the (dis)establishment of Religion clause of the US first amendment to protest against the federal government forcing Catholic charities to supply health insurance coverage of birth control.  By what logic, then, can such conservative Christians justify pushing their own unique theological perspective into the bedrooms of their fellow North Carolinians? 

Of course, the argument does not seem to be based upon logic or reason, but on the emotional and selective misinterpretation of the Bible.  In his statement, Billy Graham states that "The Bible is clear, God's definition of marriage is between a man and a woman."  Yes, the Bible has many, many examples of male and female couples.  Some are held up as positive examples; others, particularly in the Old Testament, not so much.  I think of the triangle that binds Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in tragic circumstances, circumstances in which God ultimately comes to the aid of Hagar and Ishmael--the single mother alone with her child in the wilderness.  I think of Hoseah and Gomer, not exactly the happy couple who are the symbols of God's marriage with Israel.  Even Samuel's father, Elkanah, had two wives Peninnah and Hannah.  Simply put, one can find many models of marriage in the Old Testament, not all of them happy or straightforward.

However, I suspect that the amendment is less about advocating the traditional view of marriage as it is about excluding even the legal possibility of gay marriage in North Carolina.  Here, too, in various editorials and in the media, I have seen the Bible misused.  There are typically two passages that are trotted out when discussing the issue of homosexuality.  One passage misguided people turn to is in Leviticus 18:22, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (NRSV).  However, one should be careful about simplistically reading a verse like this out of context.  There are many obscure rules and regulations in Leviticus.  Pulling any number of these out of context and making them into law could have serious consequences for the state of North Carolina.   For example, what would our mills and farms do if there was a constitutional amendment against Lev 19:19, "You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different threads?"  Or shall we next write a constitutional amendment outlawing tattoo parlors, as would be required from a reading of Lev 19:28?  In Lev 11:24-26, it would appear that people are rendered ritually impure by touching the carcasses of such animals as pigs.  That would make Friday night football a special abomination to the Lord, a horrific breach of Sabbath.  And should we outlaw good North Carolina barbecue?  I can't even imagine the cries against government regulation.

More difficult to deal with is Romans 1:26-27.  It would seem that in these verses Paul is singling out same sex behavior as deeply sinful behavior.  However, even this cannot be taken out of context.  In the wider context, Paul doesn't let anything slip from his attention, especially when you look at his list of vices  in 1:28-31.  However, I don't hear anyone advocating a constitutional amendment against such things as strife, gossip, craftiness, arrogance, or foolishness?   If we were to take these verses seriously, I imagine our very legislative process would have to be rendered impious.  

In Paul's thinking about sin, everyone falls short of God's will.  Paul doesn't single out any sin, and neither should we who claim to know the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Still, I'd like to dwell on the interpretation of these verses in Roman 1 for a little while longer.  Paul states that the entire basis for human guilt is idolatry, as he defines in 1:25 as exchanging the "truth about God for a lie and worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator."  Now, how exactly do we serve the creature rather than the Creator.  In 2010, American spent $55 Billion on pets, an increase over previous years, and that in spite of a recession.  Now anyone can tell you that I love my dog as much as anyone can.  However, according to some estimate, a child dies once every 5 seconds in this world from hunger related causes.  This is a tragedy and a horror.  If one really looks at Paul's discussion in Romans 1, we are all implicated--and continue to be as we sit by and do so little to make a real change.

Now, I stated above that I admire the Grahams for their work and I want to take a moment and point out that Franklin Graham in particular has done as much or more than any famous Evangelical to raise awareness about the plight of children's poverty in the world.  Many goodhearted people have chipped in, given money, or prepared shoe boxes for his ministry.   There are many wonderful people in North Carolina who are earnestly motivated to do what they can to help those in need, whether in their own community or overseas. As my fellow North Carolinians prepare to go to the polls this coming Tuesday, I ask simply that they pray and search their conscience and decide which is better: to use their time and energy to do some good in the world for someone in need, or to waste energy supporting a petty and superfluous amendment that could cause great emotional and spiritual harm to our friends, families, and neighbors. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Who is my neighbor? Part I: "Goodbye Solo"

This week I find myself working on an article on "The Good Samaritan" figure in contemporary film.  Rather than looking at films that explicitly retell the story, I have decided to look at a few films whose characters enact elements of the narrative form found in the parable: persons in need being aided and assisted by those whom the narrative audience would consider least likely to come to assistance.

I've narrowed by thoughts down to three or four films.  Since the article is not due until the end of November, I thought I'd use my blog for the next couple of weeks to reflect on a few films I've been watching lately.

The first film I'd like to reflect on is a lovely indie shot by the Iranian director, Ramin Bahrani, entitled "Goodbye Solo."  This 2009 film was shot in, of all places, Winston-Salem, NC, here in my neck of the woods.  In the film, a Senegalese cabby, Solo, is offered $1000.00 by one of his fairs, an older white North Carolinian named William, to drive him later in the week to Blowing Rock, up in the Appalachian mountains.  When Solo finds out that William is planning only a one way trip, he suspects him of wanting to go to the mountains to jump off Blowing Rock.  The narrative unfolds with Solo trying to help William, offering a place in his home, finding him a hotel, taking him out nights to socialize, while trying to find out and resolve William's secret.  The film's characters are a study in contrasts. Solo is surrounded by friends, has a newborn infant and a bright and charming step-daughter, and spends meaningful days in a lively and exciting immigrant community.  William, on the other hand, goes to the movies alone with the sole purpose of having brief conversations with a boy at the teller window, a boy who is utterly unaware that the old man talking to him is likely is mother's long-estranged father.  The contrast between the two characters is also artfully illustrated in the cinematography.  Through much of the film, we see Solo's cab driving through the hauntingly gritty post-industrial night-time streets of Winston Salem.  The final scenes provide a shock to the senses, with the yellow cab driving in the colorful morning excesses of the late-October North Carolina mountains.  The film concludes at Blowing Rock.  Yet the narrative remains unresolved, with William's fate implied only by the image of leaves and sticks blown upward off precipitous rocks.

Whether intentional or not, this film captures beautifully the apocalyptic context of Jesus' parable.  There is a sense of urgency to Solo's efforts.  Solo's frenetic and bubbling wit, his chaotic life, and lively friendships contrast so sharply with William's tense and laconic vocalizations, his chill loneliness, and flat apathetic aspect.  Yet the film is not a cheap morality play. While Solo is deeply disturbed by William's plan, and as a "Good Samaritan," tries everything to prevent it, the main point of the film is not so much either to focus on Solo's good will or the tragedy of William's suicidal desire.  Like Jesus' parables, the film elegantly expresses the sense of urgency, expectancy, and surprising nature of new life, the coming Kingdom of God, even in the face of human despair and decay.

By looking at the parable again through the light of this film, I am reminded of how strong the compulsion is to moralize the parable.  After all, Jesus does conclude the parable with the command, "go and do likewise."  But what if the parable is more about the man who was robbed as it was about the one who stopped to help him?  Note that the expert in the law is asking "who is my neighbor?"  and Jesus concludes the parable with the question, which of the three (the Rabbi, Levite, or Samaritan who encountered the wounded man on the road) was a neighbor.  The narrative draws the parallel not between Jesus' interlocutor and the Good Samaritan, but between Jesus' interlocutor and the wounded man on the road.   By moralizing on this parable, the church preaches this as a story about how we are to help others.  However, the question is not so much,  "who are we a neighbor to?" but "who will be a neighbor to us?"  I don't think we're being urged to compare ourselves with the Good Samaritan.  Jesus compares his audience to the wounded man on the road.

In the past couple of weeks, I've finally gotten around to reading Putnam's book "Bowling Alone."  While some of the data in the book is probably quite dated by now, the trends he points to about the increasing isolation in many parts of American society--the dissolution of families, churches, and neighborhoods--have likely only accelerated in the past ten years.  "Goodbye Solo," however, points to hope.  There are small pockets, perhaps among the ones whom the "majority culture" prefers to ignore, where people are experiencing the apocalyptic hope and vibrancy of renewed community.  Maybe there is hope that some among us are experiencing life and community in various subcultures, whether among Latin American sojourners, or among the "Wall Street" tent protesters that have set up in the hearts of urban America.   I hope only it is not too late for the rest of us to give up our craven desire for isolation and find a group where we can join.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

But Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs that Fall from the Master's Table

It has become popular for some churches to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis (it was on Tuesday) with pet blessings.  I have never been to one, but have always wanted to.  For some people, this may be kind of a controversial ceremony.  It makes for great publicity for the church.  The church need not be some stuffy, rigid haven of orthodoxy.  What a wonderful opportunity to present the church as an inviting community, by posting pictures on the church website of parishioners with their "fur babies" being blessed by their pastor!

Several years ago, Janka and I were adopted by our own creature, a now 100 lb Rottweiler mix who decided one morning he was going to be part of our family.  After greeting Janka at the car as she was leaving for work and giving her a kiss on her hand, he followed me to our front porch where I proceeded to slam the door in his face, hoping he would get the message and go away.  Later, after I had gotten ready for the day and was pulling around the house from our garage, I saw him still sitting on our front porch.  Lo and behold, he was still around when I got back later that evening.  The neighbors said he stayed by the door the whole day, waiting for me to come and let him in.  We took him in that night and "Bear" has been with us ever since.  He has been a great and loving companion for us, a huge and humorous presence in our home, a loyal protector, a gentle giant.

It is strange to me that there are so few dog stories in the Bible.  As I understand it, the ancient Israelites were a herding folk.  Other symbols of their herding life, such as the staff and harp, continue to have great meaning, even in the Christian tradition.  Dogs did apparently play a role in Israel's herding life (Job 30:1) and were likely used as watchdogs (Exod 11:7?; Is 56:10-11).  They may have even played a role inside the family home; although I'm thinking the rhetoric in Matt 15:27 indicates that having dogs in the house would have been considered ritually impure and a practice among Gentiles (it is the Syro-Phoenecian woman talking here).  I'd love to know whether archaeologists have found any evidence of dogs in the home as part of an ancient Canaanite herding culture.  In most cases in which dogs are mentioned in the Bible, they are associated either with violence (consider the stories of Naboth, Jezebel, and Ahab), ritual impurity, and/or slurs of one sort or another.   There does not seem to be the association of dogs with loyalty and protection.  This is a cultural difference.  As Janka and I have witnessed, we have seen a growing acceptance of dogs in the home over the past decade or two in Slovakia.   We think it has something to do with growing affluence and the influence of Western culture.  Anyway, the evidence, at least with regards to dogs, would mean that dear St. Francis would not have thrived so well in biblical times.

So are there any good pet stories in the Bible?  I can really only think of one, Balaam's ass.  Of course any story where there's a talking donkey is bound to be good.  But the cool thing about this story is that God reprimands Balaam for unnecessarily beating his donkey with his staff; and then commends the donkey as being more spiritually acute than the seer himself (Num 22:32-33).  Of course, this probably is a piece of irony poking fun at this foreign prophet.  Still, I suspect the conversation between Balaam and his donkey would have been perceived by ancient audiences as a kind of magical realism, qualitatively different from other theophanies and miracles that are so much a part of the biblical world.  In any case, Balaam's ass makes the short list of characters in the Bible who are given a vision of the divine.   When we come to think of pet blessings and the like, perhaps we should recall this story and at least consider that our pets, in some ways, may be more spiritually acute and less stubborn than we ourselves.