The Voice

[This message was delivered at Pearce Memorial Church, Rochester NY on December 8, 2019, the second Sunday of Advent. The texts: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12.]

 

My wife and I have quite a collection of nativity sets from many lands. To come up with the traditional crèche, we have to do some conflating. We expect a magnificent star over the manger, when in fact, that star came some time later. We expect three magi arriving with camels and kneeling before the babe in the manger, when in fact, they arrived when Jesus was a child living in a house. We expect Mary to look positively fabulous after giving birth in crude outdoor circumstances. We expect Joseph to look appropriately proud to welcome a baby that he didn’t father. We expect shepherds looking cleaner than they would have been. We expect precious little animals. There is someone we forgot. Like in the movie “Home Alone,” we forgot someone: John the Baptist! His role was crucial in the story.

 

Pearce Church, let’s say your bishop or superintendent gives you a short list of candidates for your new lead pastor. One is a seasoned preacher, well known for homiletical excellence; his sermons are polished gems and several collections have become best sellers. One is a former missionary in Latin America and she has a PhD in cultural anthropology and a doctor of ministry in pastoral care. Both are held in the highest esteem in Free Methodist circles and beyond. The third is kind of an outlier. His wardrobe is limited. His diet is extreme. His preaching draws crowds and then regularly offends them. Could you imagine any church calling John the Baptist to be their pastor?

 

No one would mistake John the Baptist for Mr. Rogers. His wardrobe includes no cardigan sweaters. There is nothing warm and cuddly about him. He doesn’t care about which fork to use for salad; he is more likely to use his hands. His diet was rather extreme paleo: locusts and wild honey. Let me know if there will be any locusts served at your next congregational supper.

 

But as a preacher, watch out, for he is a force of nature. He can preach fire and brimstone as well as lamb of God. He seems to me something like a blending of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham. He has King’s prophetic edge and Grahams evangelistic heart. He can move from a thundering call for social justice to singing “Just as I Am” in two minutes. His kind do not come our way often, but oh, how we need them. They may not fit in our neat categories, but oh, how we need them. They may not dress up to our expectations and have the social graces we desire, but oh, how we need them.

 

John was not hesitant to name the darkness. Neither was Isaiah. He lived and prophesied in a time of spiritual and political darkness. Israel had already split into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom had been taken captive by global power Assyria. The southern kingdom, called Judea, was feeling the emerging Babylonian kingdom breathing heavily on their necks. Soon, they would be taken into Babylonian captivity. The Jewish kings of both south and north were generally corrupt leaders, building their own fortunes and doing whatever would keep them in power, playing fast and loose with God’s standards for servant leadership.

 

Isaiah is often called the fifth evangelist, as he points to coming Messiah with vivid images of the coming kingdom of God. But most of Isaiah’s prophecies deal with naming darkness in high places and have lots of doom and gloom. But not always. God gives Isaiah a preview of what will be someday: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them…. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” In the darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

After Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament era, there is a time of prophetic silence. Then John breaks the silence. Boldly and dramatically, John bursts on the scene and revives the prophetic office, evoking Elijah and fulfilling some of Isaiah’s prophecies. He too enters a time of darkness. Assyria and Babylon have declined, but Rome has more than filled the void, putting little Israel under it ominous boot. It is no surprise that he will die a violent death.

 

John was not hesitant to name the darkness. I teach preaching at Northeastern Seminary, right across that parking lot. One of the skills we work on is developing interesting, inviting introductions. I tell the students that a good sermon introduction opens up some space and invites the congregation to come along with the preacher and see what they will find there. For my students, I call it, “Look for a hook.” I don’t recommend the one John uses in our gospel passage today: “You brood of vipers! [Your den of snakes] Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Such is John’s unconventional boldness. And people stay to listen.

 

His preaching vocabulary is colorful, to put it mildly. What turns of phrase: ax, cut down, thrown in the fire, winnowing fork, unquenchable fire. John’s preaching was pretty simple. He has two short stump sermons and he keeps preaching them over and over, the way politicians running for office keep giving the same speech over and over.

  1. Repent: ”John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judeaand saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’…. ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.’”
  2. Look to Jesus:But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

The message is clear. Get everything ready for Jesus. The day after Thanksgiving we started getting our home ready for Advent with Christmas in sight. I want to do the same thing in my heart. I welcome John’s two sermons: to repent and turn from my sins and get ready for Jesus who makes everything new. If we put a John the Baptist figure in our nativity sets, whether as a toddler next to baby Jesus or a prophet, be sure of this: he will be pointing to Jesus. John always points people to Jesus. In the darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

Isaiah names the darkness in his time. John names the darkness in his time. So, too, we live in a time of darkness.

  • In the west African nation of Burkina Faso, 14 worshipers were killed last Sunday. There is darkness.
  • The Rochester school district is the third neediest in the country. Last week over 200 school employees were laid off. There is darkness.
  • In 2017, 70,000 Americans died from opioids and illicit drugs. There is darkness.
  • About 40,000 Americans die from gun violence every year. Those include homicides, accidents, and suicides. There is darkness.
  • Since we met here one week ago, there have two shootings at Navy bases, taking several lives and wounding more. There is darkness.
  • We are facing the near certainty of an impeachment trial of our president, that will further aggravate the political division in our country. There is darkness.

In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

These lines were scratched into the wall of a German concentration camp during WW2. In the midst of horror, someone declared their faith in the God that did not answer the way they thought He would.  “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when I don’t feel it. I believe in God even when He is silent.” In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

On December 4, 1991, Terry Anderson was released after six years of darkness in captivity in Lebanon. He was the AP bureau chief covering the civil war in Lebanon. When he was released he was flown to Wiesbaden, Germany, for medical treatment and re-orientation. Two days after his release, he met the press and answered questions. One report asked him, “What do you do with those wasted years?” Anderson answered, “those were not wasted years.” He reclaimed his faith. He worshiped with fellow captives, putting together Sunday liturgy from memory. In the midst of horrendous darkness, he saw and lived by the light of Christ. In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

We do not honor God when we deny the presence of darkness. Rather, we honor God when we name the darkness and let the light of Jesus shine in the darkness. That is what John did. The best summary of John’s ministry is in John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”

All of us here have had at least one John the Baptist in our lives; otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We have some people, maybe one or two or three, that pointed us to Jesus. These people served God’s purposes in pointing us to Jesus. Now let’s take a time of silence to remember them by name and give thanks to God for their ministry in our lives, the imprint they left on our souls.

In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming–Just Now

[This message was proclaimed at Pearce Memorial Church (Free Methodist) on the edge of the Roberts Wesleyan College campus, for the first Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019. The texts are Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44.]

 

Picture slowing down from 12,300 miles per hour (MPH) to five MPH. A year ago, we landed the InSight space probe on the surface of Mars. After a six-month journey covering 300 million miles, the InSight had to slow down, from 12,300 MPH to five MPH in under seven minutes. The NASA engineers called it the seven minutes of terror. If InSight hadn’t slowed down it would be crashed on the surface of Mars and been obliterated in a moment. InSight succeeded; talk about power brakes! It slowed down and made safe landing and is now exploring the red planet.

 

Advent calls us to slow down. Our word advent has two meanings: the first is to arrive (an arrival, a coming); the second has to do with something about to happen. The first carries the sense of an event. The second carries the sense of journeying toward something or someone, often with some hazard or danger, from which we get our word adventure. The first meaning was caught in Jesus’ coming to be among us in Bethlehem; the second meaning is caught in how we are to live because of that coming and in light of the promised coming yet to happen.

 

Our Advent begins with glorious promises first heard by Isaiah. “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshare and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2:4-5) Keeping Advent does not come readily to us. We have this countdown: Thanksgiving Thursday, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, giving Tuesday. Why not throw in Christmas Eve on Wednesday and Christmas on Thursday—get it all over in one week! Radio stations have already been playing every imaginable Christmas piece of music.

 

Advent calls us to hear the words of the prophets and not be consumed with bottom-line profits. Just over a year ago, Eugene Peterson died, one of my pastor heroes and mentors. Eugene called me to be an unbusy pastor. I make an admission: pastors sometimes try to look busy because they think it will cause the congregation to think they are really important with all these demands on their time. Eugene helped me to be an unbusy pastor. I always took a full sabbath day once a week. I always used all my vacation and study leave time. I kept reasonable hours. I sought to be a fully engaged and healthy pastor rather than a busy pastor. I needed and need the call of Advent in all seasons, and particularly in this season of unfettered busyness and rampant commercialism.

 

Jesus tells us to be watchful and ready. But first, he clearly teaches that no one knows the day or hour of his second coming, except God the Father. I was reared in a faith tradition that was always trying to nail down exactly when Jesus would return. That was used to leverage fearful living in us youth. We were given a list of activities in which we were never to engage. Why? Jesus might return at just that moment and we would be left behind. The thrust was not to be attentive to loving God and neighbor, but to getting out of this world asap. They wouldn’t have believed that some of us would be here in 2019. And here we are. Jesus has come; Jesus is coming every day in a million ways; Jesus will come again one day in glory. In the meantime, let’s slow down and be watchful and attentive. For Jesus is Immanuel; God with us now—here and now.

For twenty centuries faithful Christians have believed that they were living in the last days. And here we are in the 21st century reading these words of Jesus. For four decades I lived in eastern New York, not far from where there once was great fervor about the return of Jesus. A student of the Bible named William Miller calculated that Jesus would return between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When March 21, 1844, came and Jesus didn’t, they recalculated: April 18, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: July, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: August 10, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: October 22, 1844. They banked on those dates. Some quit their jobs. They went to a mountaintop in the early morning and waited for Jesus. At the end of those days, they returned to their homes in sadness. October 22, 1844, was called the Great Disappointment. Are we living in the last days? Yes. We just don’t know what that means in terms of chronological time.

Miller died in 1849, just as three notable people were living and working near where I now live in the greater Rochester area. One was Susan B. Anthony. She was working tirelessly for the full humanity and citizenship of women. One was Frederick Douglass. He was working for the full humanity and citizenship of African-Americans. The third was Benjamin T. Roberts. He was working tirelessly for the full humanity and citizenship of women and blacks in the Church. We are at the edge of the College named for him. He was as radical in working for the rights of women and blacks as Anthony and Douglass. That is living in watchfulness and readiness. That is a far better way to prepare for Jesus’ return.

A new movie just came out about Mr. Rogers and his influence on a skeptical reporter assigned to write an article about this kind man. My daughters were young children when Sesame Street was just beginning to dazzle children. If I were home in the late afternoon, I would sometimes watch over their shoulders and be laughing more than they were at the wondrous ways Sesame Street taught numbers and letters. But then came on another show, so very different, called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. At first I thought it slow moving, even boring. Then I watched as Fred Rogers spoke directly to my daughters and assured them of their value. He helped me to be a better person and, perhaps, a better father. When Fred Rogers was a boy, in frightening times his mother told him, look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. Look for them and become one of them. Mr. Rogers makes me want to be a kinder person. More ready to see our common humanity in other persons. More ready to listen to others. More ready to see God at work in the ordinariness of everyday life. More ready for Jesus’ coming. The gospel is more than mere kindness, but it is not less than kindness. One of the fruit of the Spirit is kindness. God’s kindness leads us to repentance, Romans tells us. What better way is there to be watchful and ready for his coming than to be kind to others? Mr. Rogers is still helping me to slow down and attend to what are the really important matters.

 

Advent calls us to slow down and be attentive to God all around us. Here are some biblical hints for Advent living:

  1. Let’s look at people. While we don’t want to stare at people, let’s look at people. Let’s slow down and appreciate people. Let’s not look away from or overlook anyone who bears the image of God.
  2. Let’s listen to people. Jesus is the master listener. Let’s work at talking less and listening more. (Yes, I, a preacher, am saying that.)
  3. Let’s leave room for God’s presence among us, not me but us. My favorite name of Jesus is Immanuel, God with us (not God with me, but God with us).

An acid test for these simple disciplines is when shopping this season. The cashier is tired of angry and impatient shoppers. The retail worker has been blistered with criticism from customers and unreasonable demands from supervisors. Let’s show these workers kindness and civility. When they ask, “Did you find what you were looking for?”, let’s not grunt but respond warmly. Let’s thank them and smile at them.

 

The trend for the Church in our part of the world is unmistakable: The Church is in decline. One of the reasons is that the unchurched and church dropouts around us perceive the Church as harsh, judgmental, and arrogant. We come through like the Pharisees that gave Jesus such a hard time for being so gracious instead of legalistic. I have this hunch that we can do a better job at walking in the light of the Lord. By appreciating people that look different than we do. That we could do a better job of bringing the good news of Jesus without harshness and judgment, without discrimination and arrogance, but with kindness and tenderness.

 

In my college years I spent a summer doing mission work in Trinidad. Shortly after arriving, we were waiting for a bus. “When it is coming?” we asked a local. “Just now,” he said. When is just now? When it comes. Wait for it. That summer we learned the meaning of just now. Instead of our American way of having watches, deadlines, and time tables for everything, Trinidadians live with a sense of just now. The bus was coming. Don’t worry. It is coming just now. Wait in watchfulness and readiness. Jesus is coming again, just now. He promised. And he tells us to wait in hope and watch in readiness.

 

A day is coming. God promised: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshare and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” A day is coming. Jesus both promised and warned: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come….  So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confidently Incompetent

[This sermon was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on the occasion of the installation of Laura Fry as new pastor. The text is 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:6.]

 

Sometimes a movie title take on a life longer and more significant than the movie itself. Such was the case with a movie that came out a dozen years ago about two men with terminal illnesses. They decided to make lists of what they wanted to do before they kicked the bucket: bucket lists. Now when people say “bucket list,” we know what they mean. We don’t think, Oh, they must have just found out they have an incurable disease. We think, rather, they have lists of what they want to do someday.

 

Churches have bucket lists. We want to see our children and youth ministries grow. We want to send out teams to work with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to help after hurricanes and earthquakes. We want to see our giving grow so we can meet more needs. We want to care for the sick. We want to be a loving, caring community. We want to grow in faith and discipleship.

 

And we have bucket lists for our pastors. Quickly, determine your top three items on that list. Let me guess; we want a pastor who is…

  • A dynamic preacher
  • A sensitive listener
  • An outstanding administrator
  • A compelling visionary
  • An empathetic counselor
  • A friend to everyone
  • A fantastic fundraiser
  • A tireless worker
  • One who walks on water, multiplies fish and loaves to feed multitudes, heals the sick, and once in a while raises the dead
  • And one who brings in young marrieds with two children and a minivan.

Yes, I went longer than three, but I didn’t name every item that churches have on their bucket lists. We want pastors that can do it all, do it well, do it now, and, if needed, do it alone.

 

There is a falsehood in the church today that is dangerous. Too many churches believe that going to seminary, getting a divinity degree, and being ordained makes people into omnicompetent pastors. They can do anything, do it well, do it now, and if needed do it alone. That falsehood needs to be admitted and owned before we go any further. With the apostle Paul, I ask, “Who is competent for these things?” The answer is clear. None of us. No one is omnicompetent. No one gets all the gifts. Admitting that, we can affirm with Paul, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant…” In the span of one sentence we have three mentions of the word competent, unfolding like this:

  • In ourselves we are not competent for this ministry;
  • But God makes us competent for this ministry;
  • By God’s gifting, we are competent to be ministers of a new covenant.

 

Laura is wonderfully gifted for this calling. She is a pastor and servant leader of distinction. Her credentials are impressive, yet she is humble and wears her credentials lightly. Anyone who works with Laura knows that she is in the right calling. But this calling doesn’t depend on impeccable credentials. Listen to Paul’s list of credentials: We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts—even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials. You know my pedigree: a noble birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book. These very credentials I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for…. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.” (from Philippians 3, adapted from “The Message”) Indeed, “Who is competent for these things?”

 

In her book, “Leaving Church,” Barbara Brown Taylor tells of her pastoral experiences and journey. As a pastor of a thriving congregation, this is what she experienced: “The demands of pastoral ministry routinely cut me off from the resources that enabled me to do pastoral ministry. I knew where God’s fire was burning, but I could not get to it. I knew how to pray…, but by the time I got home each night it was all that I could do…to go to bed….  Behind my luminous images of Sunday mornings I saw the committee meetings, the numbing routines, and the chronically difficult people…. Behind my heroic image of myself I saw my tiresome perfectionism, my resentment of people that did not try as hard as I did, and my huge appetite for approval.” Seasoned pastors understand what Brown Taylor experienced. We know our own weariness. Who is competent for these things?”

 

The pastor churches often think they want doesn’t exist. God doesn’t produce pastors on an assembly line. God calls the unlikely for this work, so the glory is God’s alone. God has always loved calling the weak and unsuspecting, from the little clan of Israel, to a shepherd boy named David, to an unlikely prophet named Jonah, to a heartbroken widow named Ruth, to a poor teenaged virgin named Mary, to a first-class klutz named Peter. In this work, weakness is not a bad thing at all; in fact, it may be our best friend. Paul writes later in this letter: “…but God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12)

 

I think of Twyla Paris’s haunting refrain from her song, “The Warrior Is a Child”:

“They don’t know that I go running home when I fall down. They don’t know Who picks me up when no one is around. I drop my sword and cry for just a while, ‘Cause deep inside this armor the warrior is a child.” Seasoned pastors understand what Twyla Paris sings. We know our own weakness. Who is competent for these things?”

 

What, then, is Laura to do in this new calling for which she is once well-credentialed and incompetent? The New Testament only uses the English word “pastor” once. Just once. There it gives a bucket list of one item. Just one. Since the New Testament gives only one clear description of what pastors are to do, we should learn this and seek to follow it. “The gifts God gave were that some would be …  pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” (Ephesians 4:11-13) That’s it. That is the New Testament list for faithful pastoring, “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry.”

 

Earlier I quoted Barbara Brown Taylor, a friend to all pastors, when she said, I knew where God’s fire was burning, but I could not get to it.”  That image brings to mind a poem by George MacDonald that I read some years ago and has become a companion on my journey ever since:

Lord, I have laid my heart upon thy altar
But cannot get the wood to burn;
It hardly flares ere it begins to falter
And to the dark return.

Old sap, or night-fallen dew, makes damp the fuel;
In vain my breath would flame provoke;
Yet see-at every poor attempt’s renewal
To thee ascends the smoke!

‘Tis all I have-smoke, failure, foiled endeavor,
Coldness and doubt and palsied lack:
Such as I have I send thee!-perfect Giver,
Send thou thy lightning back. 

We are gathered here today to worship the Lord of the Church, to confess our incompetence, and to claim the competence that God gives us—all so that the Church may be the body of Christ God calls and equips it to be. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant” 

 

All praise, honor, and glory to God alone. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For All the Saints (including us)

[I preached this sermon on All Saints Sunday, 11/3/19, at Community of the Savior, where we know how to celebrate this great holy-day. Texts: Ephesians 1:11-23 and Luke 6:20-31.]

Is this a Hallmark Company conspiracy? Now we have national days for just about everything. Today, November 3, is National Sandwich Day and National Housewife’s Day, and National turn the clocks back one hour for the resumption of Standard Time Day (just to make life difficult for dairy farmers and parents of babies). This first Sunday of November we join with thousands of churches globally in celebrating All Saints Sunday. The actual day is November 1, so I looked at the national days registry to see what November 1 holds for us. It is National Cinnamon Day, National Calzone Day, National Deep Fried Clams Day, and National Cook for your Pets Day. We might cook up some deep-fried clams, roll them in cinnamon, and wrap them in dough and see how our pets like that. If they don’t, we can eat deep dried clams rolled in cinnamon and wrapped in dough for some fabulous calzones. It said nothing about All Saints Day.

 

I went to my local Hallmark store and asked for the All Saints Day cards. The clerk said that they will have St. Valentine’s card in February and St. Patrick’s cards in March, but they didn’t have any all saints cards. She did say that on November 1 Halloween cards are marked down.

 

This is one of our days, a holy day that Hallmark has not co-opted. If we are going to send all saints cards, we will have to make them ourselves, which should be all the better. It seems to me that All Saints Sunday is a gift to us, an occasion to pause to remember, reflect, and renew.

 

We remember the biblical understanding of sainthood, which is not the popular view. I think the common view is that there some few people that are especially kind and virtuous. We might hear someone say of those special people, “Now that one is a saint,” the implication being that the rest of us probably are not saints. The biblical understanding is something more like this: all believers in the Lord are saints. The Old Testament doesn’t use the word saint much, though it talks a lot about holiness, but when it does it never speaks of an individual as a saint. It speaks of saints, as in these two verses from the Psalms.

Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful… (Psalm 31:23)

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. (Psalm 116:15)

 

The word saint occurs over 60 times in the New Testament, but it is always in the plural, the saints. No individual in the New Testament is ever identified as a saint. There is no mention of St. Paul or St. Mary. There are only the saints, all the followers of Jesus. Every church is a collection of saints. In the reading from Ephesians 1 today, Paul uses the word saints twice:

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…”

“…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints,” Both are inclusive, encompassing all believers.

 

The New Testament has no two-tier view of the church: the really holy ones (like pastors, missionaries, and church staff) and the rest of the people. It only knows one class of church membership, one level of church citizenship: all the saints. There is no sense of clergy and laity being two distinct groups. What book of the New Testament do you think has the most mentions of the word saints? It is the Revelation. Those 14 references usually are in two categories: in gathered worship, with prayers ascending, and in trouble, experiencing oppression and persecution. And the saints endure it all, for they are saints. Saints endure and keep on worshiping and keep on serving, no matter what is thrown at them. A trivia question: what is the last verse in the Bible? The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (Revelation 22:21) The New Testament’s only explicit description of what pastors are to do is this: to equip the saints for the work of ministry…” (Ephesians 4:11-12)

 

Knowing who the saints are, we turn to some of Jesus’ teaching about the saints in Luke 6, sometimes called the sermon on the plain. Unlike the beatitudes that Matthew gives us in the Sermon on the Mount, Luke has Jesus giving us two sides of four coins. There are four blessings and four woes, in four couplets. Hear them in this way, in my rough paraphrase:

  1. Blessed are you who are poor, for you are in God’s Kingdom already, now, but woe to you who are rich now, because you are going to lose all your riches.
  2. Blessed are you who are famished now, because you have a feast coming, but woe to you who having been gorging yourselves on rich pastries, for you are going to experience famine.
  3. Blessed are you whose hearts are breaking now, for laughter will soon replace your tears, but woe to you who are laughing your heads off now, for bitter tears are coming your ways.
  4. Blessed are you when people mock and bully you for following me, because unbelievable joy is being prepared for you, but woe to you who live for the praise of others, who love to have people tell you how wonderful and powerful you are, for that is going to stop in a nanosecond.

 

Those words are not necessarily good news for people like me. I am fully middle-class and live a comfortable life. I am not hungry; my refrigerator is usually full and we have a freezer in the basement. I laugh a lot, though I do shed some tears, but not enough given the brokenness and need of our world. I receive a lot of affirmation, more than I deserve. But the majority of the world’s population has a different lot, dealing regularly with poverty, hunger, often tearless weeping, and bullying. These words of Jesus are good news to them.

 

Jesus is always turning things topsy-turvy. Last weekend, Rachel and I were at a wedding in eastern New York. We saw a friend that has a high-paying job in a company that makes investments for people with considerable financial resources, helping the rich to get richer. She is a person of faith and integrity. We asked how her work was going. She didn’t smile, but scrunched her face. It wasn’t so rewarding anymore, she told us. “It’s an upside-down world,” she said. That was all she needed to say. Jesus knows that this is a crazy world, and he loves to mess with the present order of things by pointing to a whole new way, where the poor, the hungry, the brokenhearted, and the bullied are blessed in new and glorious ways. Living in a saintly way has something to do with siding with Jesus in bringing a new order of things to this confused, troubled world.

 

There is one more zinger: “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…” That sounds great, but it isn’t easy to pull off. When our nation is so divided politically, and when our world is so divided into first-world and third-world nations, think about what the Church would look like if it worked at humility instead of haughtiness, at grace instead of judgment, at generosity instead of self-preservation, at serving instead of severing, at uniting instead of dividing, at loving and welcoming the other instead of loathing and fearing the one that is different. The impression those outside the church have of the church today is that we are self-protective, quick and harsh to judge others, and as arrogant as the Pharisees that couldn’t fit Jesus into their neat religious categories. Instead, we are to “do to others as we would have them do to us.” That is the gold standard and that is saintly living. That is the Jesus way.

 

The Bible calls us saints, not because we are all that saintly, but because God loves us in spite of our unsaintliness. Let’s work at living up to what God calls us to be, at what we are by God’s grace. All Saints Day is a gift to us, a pause in our busy lives to remember saints that have gone before us, to reflect on how God still pours grace out on the unlikely, and to renew our commitment to live into our calling, the saints of God.

 

Now we pause. This day I think of my saintly mother. Born 104 years across an ocean, she died three years ago last week. She pointed me to Jesus from my first breaths. And she never stopped pointing me to Jesus. I am going to give us the gift of one full minute of silence to remember some saints that have gone before us, to reflect on God’s grace naming us as saints, and to renew our commitment to saintly living.

 

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.”

 

 

A Persistent, Persevering, Pugnacious Widow

[This sermon was delivered at Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY on 10/20/19.]

 

Thirteen days ago, the first Monday of October, the Supreme Court of our land began its new term under heightened coverage. This supreme court term is filled with drama. Will Ruth Bader Ginsburg be well enough to finish another term? Will new justice Brett Kavanaugh tilt the court in a more conservative direction? How will the court rule on hot button issues, like the legal rights and treatment of LGBT persons and abortion rights? If there is an impeachment trial in the senate, the chief justice will act as judge. So much drama.

 

But hardly anyone has been covering another story, not Fox, CNN, or MSNBC. A homeless woman, some might call her a street lady, or worse, has been stalking Chief Justice John Roberts. From her sleeping bag and cardboard shelter across the street to the south of the supreme court building, she has studied the arrival and departure times and habits of the chief justice. She knows when his black chauffer-driven Lincoln will arrive and what door he will enter the building. Within five minutes, she can accurately predict when Roberts will exit the building and get in the black Lincoln. She knows how long, within five minutes depending on traffic, is takes for Roberts to get to his home in Alexandria VA. She has even managed to find her way to the front sidewalk of his home.

 

She is harmless, having no weapons, but she is a force of nature. Badgering him from as close as security will allow her to get to him. She has been dealt with unjustly and she is demanding justice from the man who is the embodiment of the justice system in the United States. Her identity is unknown, but CBS cameras have been following her as she stalks Roberts. We think her identity and her reasons for stalking the chief justice will be on 60 Minutes tonight or next Sunday, depending on the impeachment inquiry progress.

 

Much of the story I just told is factual. I used real names and places and newsy tidbits, but my story line about the homeless woman is entirely fictitious (did I have you?). I made it up to show what Jesus usually does to make a point; he tells a story from everyday life. Jesus tells this story about a widow, a poor woman needing justice. Usually parables of Jesus do not get introductions like Luke gives to this one: Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 

 

This is a “how much greater than…” parable. God is not like this unjust, uncaring, self-absorbed judge. Rather, God is abounding in mercy, quick to hear our cries, and gracious in responding—though not always quickly. Jesus likes to exaggerate to make clear points. If that unjust, uncaring, self-absorbed judge finally grants justice to the powerless widow, how much more will our abounding in mercy God hear our cries and respond? We know nothing about the character of the widow, or even the injustice dealt to her. All we know about her is that she persistent, she is persevering, and she is pugnacious. She will do whatever it takes to get her hearing. Have we noticed how often Jesus uses women, apparently powerless women, to show us how to live and how often he responds to women in need?

 

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. The call to pray persistently runs through the scriptures. In the earliest writing in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, Paul writes: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

In my favorite of Paul’s letters, Philippians, Paul urges: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

 

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. A quick look at the prayer practices of Jesus shows his persistence (all these are from Luke’s Gospel):

  • But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray. (Luke 5:15-16)
  • Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12-13)
  • When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed,” Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. (Luke 22:41-44)

 

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. Does the Church believe in prayer? A new nightclub opened in a small town next door to a Baptist church. This bothered the congregation, so they called for an all-night prayer vigil, pleading with God to remove the nightclub. The next night lightning struck the nightclub and burned it to the ground. The owner of the nightclub knew about the prayer meeting and sued the church for praying his business out of operation. A judge heard the case. The nightclub owner’s lawyer established that there had been a prayer meeting at the Baptist church for the express purpose of asking God to destroy the nightclub. The lawyer for the church argued that the church did not cause the fire. Then the judge said, “It may not be clear how to decide this case. But we clearly have a nightclub owner who believes in prayer and a Baptist church that doesn’t.” Does the Church believe in prayer?

 

I have my own questions about prayer, among them:

  • Does God need to be convinced by multiple asks?
  • Does it make a difference to God if one person is asking or 1,000,000 are asking?
  • Why does God seem silent so often?

I don’t have answers for most of my questions about prayer, but I keep praying, mainly because Jesus was always praying. If he needed to, how much more do I. And if I am dealing with a major disease, I want every prayer chain on the planet naming me before God night and day.

 

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

I expect this need for persistence has nothing to do with God, but has everything to do with us. This need for persistence clarifies what we really need instead of what we might temporarily want. This need for persistence has a purifying effect in the one persisting.

 

Persistence is that important. In 1784, a young member of the British Parliament named William Wilberforce became a follower of Jesus. He was born to wealth and privilege and pretty much had his way in life, with success after success. When he met Jesus, things began changing. He realized that the British government’s participation in the African slave trade, by then happening for nearly two centuries, was morally wrong, an offense to the God he had come to love and service. Beginning in 1787, he introduced bills in Parliament to end British participation in the slave trade. His overtures lost year after year, but slowly began building wider support and momentum. In 1807, the Parliament voted to end British involvement in the slave trade. Wilberforce’s persistence made a difference. It would be over a half century before the United States began ending our abominable legal sanction of slavery.

 

Persistence is that important. Last May the commencement speaker at St. Bonaventure University, not far to the west of us in western NY, was Anthony Ray Hinton. You may have seen his story on 60 Minutes a few years ago or read about him in “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. Look for the movie version of that book coming out this Christmas. Hinton, a black man from Alabama, was found guilty of two murders over 30 years ago, though he was innocent of both. He was sentenced to death and spent three decades on death row in Alabama’s notorious Angola prison. Through the persevering efforts of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, the slow-moving Alabama legal system finally released this innocent man. It took persistence. It took perseverance. It took pugnacity. And it took prayer. And justice was finally done.

 

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. For every follower of Jesus in this world of injustice, this is a needed word. Amen.

 

 

Sunrise, October 16, 2019: a sunrise to remember

 

 

I have been to scores of Easter sunrise/sonrise services, always loving the drama of beginning worship outside in the dark, usually in a cemetery, and having the sun slowly peak over the eastern horizon. I have seen numerous sunrises, always enjoying the slow emergence of the light. But usually I would be driving somewhere, not very focused on the rising of the sun, but to whatever caused me to get up so early.

 

On October 16, 2019, I experienced a sunrise such as I never have before. For about half the year, beginning in early October, the rising sun reaches the land of the United States first at Cadillac Mountain in the heart of Acadia National Park, 1530 feet above the cold waters of the north Atlantic. Rachel and I were staying in Bar Harbor for the first time, right next to Acadia. I checked the weather reports each night and Wednesday promised the clearest morning. Sunrise would be at 6:48am. I drove in the darkness to the parking lot near the summit. The parking lot was nearly full at 6:10, and plenty of cars were parked alongside the rode before they reached the parking area. I got one of the last spaces. I was surprised, since Columbus Day (Indigenous Peoples Day in Maine—Yea for Maine) was two days before. When the holiday weekend concludes on Monday, many seasonal activities and services stop rather suddenly. A favorite lobster place decided to close at the end of Sunday. I guess they would use Indigenous Peoples Day to recover from their busy season. I’m glad we got there on Sunday—their lobster stew is the best. Tuesday feels very different. Even the foliage seems to get the message. It seemed to peak on Saturday through Monday, then slowly move to past peak. Slowly. Though blazing colors were evident, a local reminded us that it was now past peak. I wasn’t going to argue the point with a local.

 

As I walked to the granite summit, I was not walking alone. People were walking the same direction from all around me. I found a spot that had a fine view of the ocean to the east. I must have heard people speaking at least a half dozen languages. Some had children alongside them. A few were carrying babies. There were plenty of leashed dogs, all on good behavior, except one near me that seemed annoyed, not angry, to be standing on a granite slab in the waning darkness. Serious photographers had their tripods on flat granite, cameras ready.

 

It was like a congregation gathering to worship. But no one spoke loudly. There was a voluntary hush as we waited. This congregation of hundreds, mostly strangers to one another, gathered for one purpose: to see the sun rise first. Yes, it was very much a kind of worship; an attribution of worth to a wonder of nature. Though the sun rises daily, we aren’t in this place daily.

 

The 20 minutes or so before sunrise were as dramatic as the actual sunrise. The eastern horizon started to turn a pale pink, then a rich rose, then something mixing gold and orange with the above. The closer we moved to that moment of sunrise, the quieter and more still the large congregation became. All attention was fixed on one point over the vast Atlantic.

 

When the crown of the sun appeared, the silence was broken by oohs and aahs. No one moved. Cameras clicked repeatedly. Only when the sun was fully up and the sky filling with its light, did people dare begin moving back to their cars and back to whatever the day held for them. I lingered to watch people.

 

I think all of you know that I am a retired pastor and a serious worshiper of the Son. How I would love to see every Sunday morning become more like that Wednesday morning. Where it is hard to find a parking space. Where people from all walks of life gather, people of every skin color and language and culture. Where all attention is fixed on one glorious, all-surpassing presence. Where children and babies are brought to experience something they can’t begin to understand yet (and dogs? Why not?). Where we are not instructed on cue to be still and hushed, but instinctively know we are in the presence of shimmering beauty that demands stillness.

 

Will I ever get back to Cadillac Mountain for a sunrise? I hope so. But if not, I will never forget sunrise on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. And I will approach gathered worship this Sunday with renewed wonder and eager anticipation.

 

(I will post more photos of that sunrise experience on my Facebook page. I’m sure there is a way to do it here, but I don’t know how to do that yet.)

A Jamaican-American Funeral

[I had the privilege and honor of serving at the funeral of Flora Alexia Chin at Gates Presbyterian Church on Saturday, September 28.]

 

I am currently on pastoral emergency call for a local church whose pastor moved almost two months ago. Last week I was called to serve a family for a funeral. I met with a handful of family members two days before the service—and I knew this was going to be a special honor for me. Flora died at age 89. She was born in Jamaica and came to the United States as an adult with her husband, settling in Rochester. Their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, along with many nieces and nephews, form a large family. While those generations are American born, their Jamaican cultural roots are vital. We spent an hour planning the service as they graciously told me about their beloved mother, grandmother, and aunt (Auntie Flo).

 

A first challenge dealt with whether the casket could be open for the service, which was their desire. The church has a policy that caskets be closed for funerals. I agree with that policy, but I saw that there was a meeting of two cultures, both good and honorable. I suggested that the casket be open during a visitation hour before the service and then closed for the service. The church leaders and family agreed.

 

While I do not prefer the custom of open caskets for public viewing, as I sat silently in a pew, occasionally walking around to greet people during the visitation hour, I was moved by the tenderness and love evident as people quietly approached the coffin and paid their respects. There were tears and some audible sobs—all communicating the affection in which Auntie Flo was held.

 

A few minutes before the time for the funeral, the family and I exited to a side room. Simple white flowers were distributed to all the relatives. Then, the hour at hand, we processed back into the sanctuary. One-by-one and two-by-two, the relatives made that final journey to Flo’s casket. When all were finished, the funeral directors quietly and reverently closed the casket and placed a spray of red roses in it.

 

The service was filled with tears and laughter, as relatives and friends shared their memories. There is nothing unusual about that at a funeral or memorial service, but there was a depth to the comments that is not so common. A granddaughter reminded us that Flo often quoted Proverbs 22:6, about training a child in the right way so that the when they are old they will hold to it. That gives parents of wandering children hope. Then she scanned the congregation, seemingly making eye contact with every one of her cousins, to drive home the point. All scripture readings and quotations were from the old King James version, except mine. Two grandchildren sang solos beautifully. Knowing the size of the family and the number of people pre-selected to speak, they didn’t assign me a sermon (and I love preaching the Good News at funerals), but said I could say anything I wanted whenever I wanted. I contented myself to start singing “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine…” knowing they would quickly join in. We excited the sanctuary to the strains of “This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long.” That was well over 90 ministers after we had started. And it didn’t bother anyone one bit.

 

On Thursday I had suggested that from the sanctuary, the pall bearers would carry the casket right to the hearse. “Oh no,” one of them said. “She will be carried away in a glass-sided carriage, just like Princess Di was.” I asked, seriously, if horses would pull it. “No, a motorcycle will.” I couldn’t wait to see this carriage after the service. Sure enough, a glass-sided carriage connected to a motorcycle was waiting for the casket. When I saw that many others were snapping photos, I got out my iPhone and joined them. It was, indeed, a beautiful way to send off Auntie Flo.

 

The long procession of cars following the glass-sided carriage was quite a sight going from surface roads to an interstate highway and back to surface roads. A second motorcycle went ahead blocking off intersections, and stopping, almost by force, any drivers that didn’t know funeral procession protocol. He would not let this solemn procession be interrupted by the unknowing!

 

As the graveside service ended, the funeral director said a few words of gratitude to send us away, when one relative said, “We want to see it go down. Can’t we do that?” Yes, we could and we did. Two workers lowered the casket into the pre-dug hole. When they stood aside, one by one, we took those red roses we had plucked from the casket spray and dropped them into the hole and onto the casket. That is such a healthy way to honor that moment of finality. But we weren’t finished. One woman began singing a song with a simple refrain about saying goodbye to this world. Others joined her. Then she seamlessly moved into “I’ll Fly Away, oh glory,” with even more of us singing those well-known words.

 

The repast, the meal following the graveside service, was a Jamaican feast, as promised. At our tables in a jam-packed church fellowship hall, cups of goat-head soup were brought to us first. The Jamaican man t my left reminded me that enslaved peoples never got the best cuts of anything, so they learned to slow cook the lesser cuts with the right spices—and nothing was wasted, not even a goat’s head. The soup was delicious. And so was everything on the long serving table: white rice, brown rice with beans, cabbage in some exotic sauce, chicken in brown sauce, Jamaican jerk chicken, goat stew, small white fish (whole fish with heads intact) in onions, some other meat dishes, Jamaican bread, and more. And callaloo. There is a story there. At the Thursday gathering they said that there would be a Jamaican feast. I spent some summers in my youth in southern Caribbean islands and became fond of callaloo, a thick broth with cabbage, spices, and whatever else was available in it. I asked if there would be callaloo. They said no. But during the visitation, one of Flo’s daughters, Tammiko, came up to me and said that she had made a large batch of callaloo on Friday. The first bowl of it was brought to me at my table. It was all I had hoped for and more.

 

I had left my home at 9:00am that Saturday morning. I returned home at about 4:30pm, my heart filled with joy and gratitude for the rich honor that was mine to be included in such a day, such a sendoff. Auntie Flo, rest in the Lord’s peace. You are dearly loved.