Blog

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.

Table Manners

[This sermon was delivered on 9.1.19 at Perinton Presbyterian Church.]

 

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched…. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:1, 7-14)

 

Do you have a bucket list? I do, a list of things I’d like to do before I die. Recently, my wife and I hosted good friends from out of state for three days. In one of our rambling conversations, Carl asked each of us: what is on your bucket list? We enjoyed hearing each other’s answers. One of mine is this: I would like to attend a state dinner at the White House. It wouldn’t matter the occasion. I have walked through the East Room of the White House on tours several times; I would like to enter it in formal attire and be seated at a table for a genuine state dinner. It wouldn’t matter which table, but I wouldn’t mind if it were close to the head table.

 

I have served at over 200 weddings, so I know something of seating protocol at formal dinners. There is the newlywed couple, then the wedding party, the immediate families, the good friends of long standing, and the more distant friends and relatives. My main concern is that I not be assigned to a table right in front of a big, loud speaker. That makes conversation impossible. If I am assigned a seat in front of a speaker, I might survey the room for empty seats at other tables and make a stealthy move.

 

I like being at formal dinners. The food is usually well above average. And there is a festivity. The tables are set with fine linen, often with fresh flowers and candles in the center of each table. There are more forks than one needs, each with its own unique purpose. There might be little treats, like chocolate, intended to follow dinner, but I usually find a way to open them before dinner and sneak them into my mouth, discreetly of course.

 

Why do Pharisees keep inviting Jesus to their dinners? I think they would know in advance that they are likely to disagree with him about fine points of theology and faithful living. He doesn’t wear the finest clothing, because he doesn’t have any. He probably doesn’t shower every morning. He doesn’t even own a home, or a chariot; not even a donkey. I can only imagine that they find him so interesting. Immensely interesting. His ability to spin stories from everyday life is already legendary. Like him or not, he brings life to the party. The table conversation will be anything but dull.

 

“One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched….” Aha! They are carefully watching him. Perhaps they are looking to catch him saying something so wrong, something heretical by their standards, that they can have him turned over to the leading rabbis and be done with him.

 

Sure enough, Jesus is troubled. He sees a pecking order, according to which people readily know where they stand—and sit—in this dinner party. We can picture it. The wealthy get these seats. The well-connected get those seats. The beautiful people are there. No, no, no, Jesus says: “But when you are invited, take the lowest place….” Then he illustrates by way of a wedding feast story, ending with this jarring conclusion: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” That is just not the way most people see life working. In our current immigration crisis, some see the answer as having a merit approach. Let those best able to care for themselves and succeed come in, but not others that cannot care for themselves as well. Jesus is not addressing the current American immigration crisis, but he challenging the ways things are, the way we tend to do life. He doesn’t seem to endorse the meritocracy approach.

 

Jesus is always challenging the status quo, the ways things are. He sees things in new ways, different ways, better ways. He is ever rocking the boat and stirring the pot. His first words spoken in a synagogue in Luke’s gospel give warning: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:17-18)

 

Jesus continues, as the dinner guests are either delighted or troubled by him (I expect some were in each camp). “When you throw your next lunch or dinner party, don’t just invite the usual people: the wealthy and well-connected. No, invite some less obvious folks”: “…invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind….” Invite some people that can’t pay you back.

 

Many see life as all transactional. I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine. Two movies illustrate different approaches. In “The Godfather”, Vito Corleone does favors to people and keeps track, so he can call in those favors when he needed them. He likes having people in his debt. Another movie took a different tack. In “Pay It Forward,” the one receiving a favor was not to pay it back to the benefactor, but to find someone else in need and do the kindness to that one. There is no question which way Jesus leans. Do kindness to people that can’t pay it back to you. Set them free to help others. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Invite those so often overlooked.

 

The author of Hebrews urges such radical hospitality. “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” The New Testament word hospitality literally means loving the foreigner, the stranger. Hospitality can be a power game, in which the one offering hospitality is in the obvious place of privilege and power. It can be like, “I have a nice, large house and you don’t, so I will invite you over and impress you with how successful I am.” That is not biblical hospitality. In biblical hospitality, we sit at the same table, stand on level ground, and look each other in the eye as friends, as sisters and brothers. These two passages link humility and hospitality.

 

When I pastored in eastern New York, I was a member of a covenant group of pastors that met every other month for a full day of worship, mutual support, and food. For one meeting we had a guest speaker, whom I hosted at my home the night before. As we drove to the meeting, he asked me about the group. There were about 12 regulars and I described them as I knew them, one at a time. When it came to John, I said something like this. “When John enters a room, he looks for anyone that might be on the edge, perhaps feeling alone, and he goes over and quietly welcomes that one. Then he looks for what needs to be done and he does it, quietly, never calling attention to himself.” When we arrived at our meeting place, I started introducing Michael to each member already there. About half were there and others were coming in. Michael saw one person quietly moving chairs to create a circle for all of us, making sure coffee mugs and water glasses were filled. Michael looked at me and looked toward that one, and mouthed to me, “John?” “Yes,” I mouthed back. John wasn’t trying to look humble; he just was. He wasn’t trying to look like a servant; he simply was a servant. His humility wasn’t broadcast; it was authentically lived.

 

  1. S. Lewis caught what biblical humility is in two simple sentences:
  • Humilityis not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
  • “A man (or woman) is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility.”

The worst form of pride is trying to look humble. We are not called to look humble, but to be humble. Humble and hospitable. If we are good at something, it isn’t humility to pretend otherwise. That may be pride, which is the polar opposite of true humility. If we are good at something, true humility allows us to accept that and give glory to God, the source of every good and perfect gift. Jesus embodies humility and hospitality and calls us to do the same.

 

The next time we invite people over for dinner, what will the guest list look like?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus and Family Values

[This sermon was delivered at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on Sunday, August 18, based on Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:31-38.]

 

Everyone has an occasional bad day. I don’t mean bad hair days; I mean bad days. Days in which we are prone to say things we later regret. Days in which we are too tired, emotionally or physically or both, to be at our best. Days which catch us off-guard and often bring out our worst. Don’t raise your hand and answer out loud. Have you had a bad day recently? Let’s quietly admit that we have such days.

 

Was Jesus just having a bad day? He has made the turn toward Jerusalem and it doesn’t feel like those happy days in Galilee, when throngs were becoming crowds and there was an air of excitement whenever he appeared. Those days when we saw Jesus smiling and laughing. Luke 12 doesn’t feel that way. It is filled with warnings. Two phrases run through the chapter: “Do not be afraid…” and “Do not worry….” Which means Jesus knows his disciples have reason to be afraid and worried. The call is for alertness and watchfulness. Today’s passage ends with a weather warning. “When you see clouds coming in from the west, you say, ‘Storm’s coming’—and you’re right. And when the wind comes out of the south, you say, ‘This’ll be a hot one’—and you’re right. Frauds! You know how to tell a change in the weather, so don’t tell me you can’t tell a change in the season, the God-season we’re in right now.” (Luke 12:54-56 in “The Message”) Clearly Jesus didn’t live in western New York, where weather forecasting is a tad more complicated. The Sea of Galilee didn’t cause lake effect snow storms, where one neighborhood might get 12 inches of snow, while a neighborhood one mile away might get a dusting. But, alas, he isn’t talking about meteorology with Doppler radar, satellite images, and 10-day projections. He is talking about seeing realities right in front of us and working with them in faithful ways.

 

The reality in front of them is that Jesus’ message doesn’t always make for happy family times. The icy edge in this passage is that Jesus’ message threatens nuclear family ties. At this point, he is not the family values guy many think he is and that we want him to be. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” It sounds like he is having a bad day. Let’s give him some space. We know he is pro-family. We know he is all in for family values. Don’t we? Isn’t he?

 

Jesus was clear on numerous occasions that the family of faith matters more than the family of bloodlines. When the two—the family of bloodlines and the family of faith—are intertwined, that is wonderful; it has been so in my life. But it isn’t always so. When push comes to shove, Jesus elevates the faith family above the bloodlines family.

 

Jesus didn’t come to save the nuclear family. He came to save broken people and bring them into the new family of faith. That theme that runs throughout the New Testament. Two passages in the gospels catch it well.

  • First, we look at Luke 8:19-21, where Jesus is teaching in a crowded room. His mother and brothers showed up but couldn’t get through to him because of the crowd. He was given the message, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside wanting to see you.’ He replied, ‘My mother and brothers are the ones who hear and do God’s Word. Obedience is thicker than blood.’” (Both passages are quoted from “The Message.”)
  • Second, we look at John 2:2-5, where Jesus is at a wedding party. Jesus and his disciples were guests also. When they started running low on wine at the wedding banquet, Jesus’ mother told him, ‘They’re just about out of wine.’ Jesus said, ‘Is that any of our business, Mother—yours or mine? This isn’t my time. Don’t push me.’ She went ahead anyway, telling the servants, ‘Whatever he tells you, do it.’”

 

Jesus comes to make everything new, including how we understand and experience family. I am troubled by many of the ways churches use the word family. I object when churches talk about family ministry in an exclusive way. Everything the church does is family ministry. Musical ensembles, Bible studies, VBS, refugee resettlement, soup kitchens and food pantries, softball teams, mission trips close to home and far away: these are all family ministry. Single people, married people, widowed people, divorced people, remarried people, married people with children by whatever means, people with stepchildren, married people without children they bore—these are all the members of the family. Jesus comes to make everything new, including how we understand and experience family.

 

A relative of mine died two days ago. Barbara lived a faithful and fruitful life. She was my sister, Barbara Jean Riegles, a member of this congregation. She had been in the hospital under palliative care the last few weeks. Jean was a single woman, never married and never bearing children. But that doesn’t mean she had no family. People of this congregation—not just pastors—had been visiting her, sitting at her bed side when she could not communicate or acknowledge their presence. Jean taught music and voice at Houghton College for many years. Former students have been sending messages of love, gratitude, and support. Her faith family was there for her. Jean and I were related in the most significant way: we belonged to and served the same Lord, which made us siblings in this family, this community of the savior.

 

 

Jesus doesn’t come to keep the status quo. He never has and never will. He stirs up the pot. He rocks the boat. He messes with our rigid categories. He ever surprises us by not fitting into our neat religious boxes. He is not a toothless tiger, not a milquetoast messiah. Yet he always comes to in grace and tenderness, welcoming all sorts of people, including some we might be embarrassed to have in the family. Jesus comes to make everything new, including how we understand and experience family. He comes to seek and save the lost. To bring back to the flock the wandering sheep at end of day. To throw custom to the wind as he runs to welcome home his prodigal sons and daughters.

 

In her book, “Leaving Church,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes about moving from being on a pastoral staff at a large church in Atlanta, to becoming solo pastor of a smaller church in a small town in northeastern Georgia. She found that the congregation had all kinds of people in it. She writes, “In a big city they might have found homes in five markedly different congregations, but in a county with only one Episcopal Church they learned to live together—the Yellow Dog Democrats, the National Rifle Association boosters, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the League of Women Voters. I asked a newcomer what brought him to Grace-Calvary. He replied, ‘I know people who come to this church, and I finally had to see for myself how they got through a Sunday morning without assaulting each other.’” Our essential family unit is the local congregation, where we get through Sunday mornings without assaulting each other. Where our unity is not uniformity, but our common commitment to Jesus. And our common table. And our common baptismal font. And our common love for God and neighbor. We are called to be a community of the savior, finding our common unity in Christ.

 

We got an unusual glimpse of family in the wake of the terrible gun violence in El Paso on August 3, which killed 22 people. Antonio Basco’s wife of 22 years, Margie, was working at that Walmart and was shot to death. Because they didn’t have many relatives left and none nearby, Antonio was concerned that his wife’s life and death might not be noted. In the obituary, he included the phrase, “all are invited to her memorial service.” And, oh yes, Margie loved flowers. The flowers started pouring in, sprays by the hundreds, from all over the country and across oceans. Sensing how the El Paso community was responding, the funeral director moved the memorial service to a large church. People stood in line for several blocks to greet Antonio. Of the thousands of notes of sympathy, one simply said, “We are your family.”

 

This family has room for all sorts of folk. Like “Rahab the prostitute… And Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets…” And those “…who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness…. Others were tortured…. suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented….” Talk about bad days. They come even to the faithful. And the faithful keep faith. They are family. We are family. In the family, we pull together and support each other. Welcome to the family reunion, which we do every Sunday morning.