Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Our place in His story, and our work for His glory . . .

     I had one of those frustrating weeks.  I had the sermon subject earlier in the week, but no illustrations ever came.  I had considered, given the lack of illustrations, that maybe I should preach on love in our Gospel lesson, but God seemed to be giving me a hard “no.”  I was boring myself with that one, and I’m the only one among us who has done master’s and doctoral work on the subject of love, so I knew what it would do to you all.  I even gave some thought to Revelation and the new creation, but I was boring myself with my internal sermons.  So, I ended up sticking to a lecture on Acts.
     I should say that I do share the process sometimes for a couple reasons.  First, sermons should be the part of our worship where we are educated, built up, and prepared intellectually and emotionally to head back out into the world to do the work God has given each of us to do.  It is the job of any good preacher to remind us how the selections read from the Bible are applied today.  That’s why I hate it when I have no modern illustrations.  The other reason, of course, is for those in the congregation who need to hear from God in another passage.  I think people in the pews tend to think sermon preparation is focused only on one reading, and that is the Gospel passage.  Granted, more time is devoted to the reading that ends up being selected for the sermon, but most of us, check that—let’s say better preachers-- spend time at the beginning of the week reading, praying, and studying the other readings.  If I admit my wrestlings, I find that folks will sometimes come in later that week or the next to talk about a reading and how they think it applies to their life.  The working out of our salvation may take place in community, but there is an individual aspect to it as well, right?
     To remind us where we are in Acts, there are a couple things of which we need to be reminded.  First, the stories in Acts, traditionally held, were collected and edited by Luke.  Luke had the advantage of being able to witness some of the events described or to get the perspective from the participants in the story.  In some ways, the book of Acts is the book of the Holy Spirit.  The Gospels share the ministries and teachings of Jesus, and the book of Acts recounts the results of His Resurrection.  How did the Church come to be?  What were some of the early difficulties?  Who were the main players the Holy Spirit was blessing?  Those questions, and many others, are answered in the book of Acts.
     Our reading today takes place at an interesting point in the history of the Church.  The Jewish believers are struggling what to make of Gentiles claiming to be followers of the Way, disciples of Jesus, too.  Word has come to them in Jerusalem that some Gentiles in Joppa have become what you and I call Christians.  They send Peter to check out the situation and report back.  Tabitha/Dorcas has been raised, and Peter has had a vision from Jesus.  More amazingly from Peter’s perspective, some men were sent to him in Joppa from Caesarea in obedience to the commands of an angel.  Since the Holy Spirit compelled him, Peter went to Caesarea.  There he was told that an angel had commanded the patriarch to send for Peter so that Peter can give him a message by which he and his family can be saved.  Peter begins to preach the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit falls on all those present.
     What should be a glorious time, though, is, instead, an occasion for accusation.  The remaining apostles, the saintly superheroes of the Church, are furious with Peter.  He has eaten meals with non-circumcised Gentiles.  He seems to have accepted them as full members of the Church.  What about circumcision?  What about defilement?  We can hear the conversations in our own minds.  Peter, have you lost your mind?  Peter, have you taken leave of your sense?  Peter, we trusted you to check on this for us and restore order, and you seem to be fostering chaos!  That’s where we are when our story picks up.
     Peter gives his testimony in an interesting way.  He explains that while he was in Joppa praying, he was given a vision.  The vision is fairly well known in both Christian and non-Christian circles, though its meaning and significance are often obscured.  This is the vision where Peter is taught the meaning of the dietary laws.  I’ll not bore you with all the details, but most of us gathered here today understand that the torah was given for more than one reason.  We often assume, wrongly, that the torah was solely concerned with moral categories, questions of good and evil.  Setting aside for a moment the moral category of “if God commands it, then we should do it” and the corollary “If God says don’t, we should not,” the torah also was an instruction manual teaching God’s people how to stand out and how to attract others.  Remember from Lent, the torah was given to a redeemed people who wanted God to teach them how to live in communion with Him.
     The easiest example would be the sabbath day, sabbath year, and the fiftieth year celebration.  Thinking economically for just a moment, how would folks in the ANE have perceived God’s people taking a day off every week to celebrate His redemption and still having what was needed to live?  Heck, who are we kidding, how would the modern world perceive this if God still asked this of us?  Over time, it would stand out, right?  In the beginning it might seem foolish or quirky, but as the standard of living for the faithful observer stayed the same, people would begin to notice.  Fred never works on Sunday’s, but he always has enough to eat, for the home he lives in, and to get the necessities.  Susie always seems to have what she needs, and she takes a complete day off.  Now, imagine taking every seventh year off.  If we were God’s faithful people and were able to spend every seventh year in leisure and thanking God, do you think the wider world would eventually notice?  Better still, every 49th year, we’d take two years off?  In a world that values productivity, what would be the testimony of such faithful observance?  How many people would be drawn to the worship of God?  How many people would be encouraged to trust that He can provide, even daily bread, for two full years?
     The only modern example I can give is that of Chick-fil-A.  When I was a broker and Branch Manager I used to chuckle at the efforts by Wall Street to convince its now dead founder, Truett, to open on Sundays.  Truett would have none of it.  Sunday was a day for worship or spending time with family or just relaxing.  Analysts noticed how the productivity of Chick-fil-A restaurants were higher than other comparable restaurants.  They would argue that his intractability regarding Sunday’s was costing his company however many millions of dollars.  The CEO, to his credit, taught the analysts that his chain’s productivity was higher versus the peer group precisely because they observed the sabbath.  He claimed the planned day of rest and worship and time with family caused even his non-Christian employees to be happier, to provide better service, and to be more attuned to what was going on around them.  That is part of the reason why Chick-fil-A has never gone public.  Truett was not about to give Wall Street control over the way he ran his business.
     The Jews were commanded to be set apart, distinct, in every part of their life.  Many of us know that their diet was another area in which they were distinct and set apart.  You all know the food had to be prepared properly.  It is called kosher.  Certain things could be eaten and certain things could not.  Some animals were clean and others were unclean.  Part of the problem for Peter is that he associated clean and unclean with good and evil.  We understand why.  Defilement meant one had to be purified in order to worship at the Temple or synagogue.  Though we understand the why, it does not make it right.  And Jesus needs to correct this for Peter.  And, even though Peter knows his Lord’s voice, God still needs to explain it three times to get through Peter’s thick-headedness yet again.
     God takes Peter and us back to Genesis and creation.  Was there anything inherently evil with the animals that God created that He later declared unclean?  No!  They were all good.  They each had a role in the earth He created.  Eating bacon did not make a Jew evil; sin made a Jew evil, just as it made us evil before our repentance.  But there is more for Peter to share, and it’s those other areas upon which I want us to focus today and how they apply to our lives today.
     First and foremost, there is a myth out there in the wider Church that baptism in the Holy Spirit produces spiritual maturity.  You and I live in a ground zero location for those fights in Christianity.  In fact, some Adventers are refugees from those fights.  There are denominations around us, with strong Pentecostal influence, who claim that a baptism in the Holy Spirit is necessary for one to gain spiritual maturity and assurance of God’s favor after death.  In fact, there is a bit of a look down on other Christians who have not had the identical experience.  Putting aside for the moment the fact that our Lord’s command was that His disciples baptize others in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and not to wait for baptisms in the Holy Spirit, this passage serves as an easy rejoinder that God will do what God is going to do and that such baptisms in the Holy Spirit do not equal spiritual maturity.  How so?
     First, it is the Apostles, the saints of the early Church, who confront Peter.  Those men spent three years traveling with Jesus, learning from Jesus, exercising power in Jesus’ name, witnessed His death, met and conversed with Jesus after His Resurrection, watched His Ascension, received the commands of the angels to wait on the Holy Spirit, and experienced the coming of the promised Counselor in the event we call Pentecost, and what is their response to the rumors that Gentiles were proclaiming Jesus as Lord?  Worse, what is their response to Peter’s willingness to fellowship with Gentile believers, as if they never watched Jesus fellowship with Gentile or Jewish non-believers in all that time with Him?  They were the initial recipients of the Holy Spirit baptism and they are acting like anything other than someone spiritual mature.
     The other side of that discussion relates to Cornelius’ conversion.  The Holy Spirit moves where the Holy Spirit wills.  None of us sitting here today would likely think to claim that Cornelius and his household were on par with the early disciples, spiritually speaking.  Yet Peter recognizes that they received the same gift during his brief teaching that the earliest believers and disciples received at the event on Pentecost.  Peter, who is so slow to grasp so many other teachings sees and obeys.  And, just as a reminder, he points out in his defense that six other men witnessed this event, too.  They can testify to this event in Cornelius’ house.  This is double or triple the requirement for being accepted as true in the Jewish courts as established by Deuteronomy.  Even the most conservative Jewish Christians will be forced to accept this testimony.
     You and I, of course, by virtue of a lot of struggles about which we read in Acts and later Church annals, understand this differently.  I have somewhat jokingly referred to the Apostles as the early saints or the super heroes of our faith, because that is how we often view them.  But God reminds us in Scriptures that all the heroes we admire in the Scriptures were human beings.  All human beings, even us, can become saints through faithful obedience to God.  You know this through the expression “the priesthood of all believers.”  God wants you and me to be saints in the lives of others—we are supposed to be lights in our generation or vessels of His grace in the world around us, right?
     The second lesson to which I think God wants me to draw your attention today is the centrality of the Gospel.  The angel commands the man to send for Peter in Joppa so that Peter will give him and his household a message by which he and they will be saved.  What is Peter’s message?  The Gospel.  One can well imagine an early version of the creeds of the Church.  Peter explained that Jesus was the Son of God, who became flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit, taught and healed in God’s name, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again!  After some other events, He ascended into heaven.  What is the response of the household?  They hear and believe and receive the power of the Holy Spirit.  Put differently, the baptism is nice, but the event that triggers all of it is the Gospel!  Peter shares the Gospel.  They believe.  They are anointed by the Holy Spirit.
     I know we live in a culture, even here in the Christian South and in Nashville, which buys into the myths of pluralism.  Heck, we are Episcopalians and known more for our drinking and our disregard of the Scriptures and whatever else God has revealed to us as evidenced yet again this week by our skewering on the satirical site Babylon Bee.  The Gospel makes us uncomfortable.  If it is true, then pluralism is false.  If, as our Collect today proclaims that Christ Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, then all other claims are deadend’s, lies, and death.  But we are in the season of Easter.  For these seven weeks we intentionally remind ourselves of the truth of the Resurrection and, just as significantly, of its importance.  If Jesus was raised from the dead, then His teachings are true.  If Jesus was raised from the dead, then He has a unique and superseding claim not just on our own lives, but on the lives of everyone in the world!  And He has entrusted us, and empowered us, to be His witnesses!  Yes, we are called to a joyful and thanksgiving witness.  We do not want to be jerks or a-holes, but we also cannot let those whom we are called to learn continue you along their paths by withholding the Gospel from them.  To use the image of one of the early fathers in the Church, we withhold the directions to an oasis in the desert every time we shrink back from testifying to others the Gospel of Christ.  So the Gospel must always be central to our lives.  It must always be in our focus.
     The third point I think God had in mind for me to share with you on this passage today is that we do not get to decide who is in and who is out in God’s kingdom.  I have had a small number of Adventers argue with me the past few years that we exclude on the basis of race around here.  I have pushed back, and in so doing incurred the wrath of others, with the belief that we are great at welcoming folks who are like us regardless of color or culture or upbringing.  The homogeneity that exists at Advent is one of socio-economics and maybe education rather than race.  As I have read more of our parish history, I am more and more surprised that such is our response.  Our parish forebears help convince the Church that pew taxes were unjust.  Our parish forebears helped convince our Episcopal church that God intended for blacks to be part of the Church, and not a separate denomination.  It was our parish forebears who made sure the freed slaves would consider worshipping in our tradition by helping in the effort to build parishes for them and to make sure other freed slaves could be trained to lead them.  I get that it was not the way things should be today nor the way God intended—after all, He desired One Church for all believers, but I am mindful our parish forebears lived in a different time and different context and that they, themselves, we impacted by sin.  Were you a freed slave, could you really worship with your former master?  Were you a former master, could you give thanks to God for the newfound deliverance of your slaves?  Could any of them really see God’s redemption in the Civil War that had just concluded?
    The real pushback against ministries around here have involved the fear of the “what if” results.  What if those women and men you free decide to come to church here?  What if those immigrants and refugees decide to come to church here?  What if those people we serve through Body & Soul or Good Neighbors or whatever other ministry decide to come to church here?  I have news for us.  They won’t.  So long as we treat them as “other” or as projects or as “feel good” works and not as human beings created in the image of our Father in heaven, they will choose to go elsewhere.  I have more disturbing news for some of us today, though, were God not in charge of this effort we call salvation history, you and I would not be here 2000 years later and 6000 miles distant giving thanks to Him for the work He has accomplished in us through His Son Christ our Lord!  Nearly all of us gathered here this morning are of Gentile descent; nearly all of us present had no tie to His chosen people.  Had the Apostles in Jerusalem had their way, Had Peter not paid close attention to Jesus’ voice and message in the vision and not discerned what was happening in Cornelius’ household, we would be outside the covenant of God!  That we are here, that we are celebrating His grace and salvation and redemptive work in our lives, I would argue, is not only a wonderful proof of the likely truth of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, but of the power of the Holy Spirit to nudge and cajole God’s people in the direction God would have His people go!
     Now, I know I have more lectured than sermonized this morning, at least according to my preferred ways.  For that I am sorry.  The few that came to 8am because they would not be attending the celebration picnic this afternoon picnic offered some suggestions.  As one present suggested, though, if it is from God, we will still get what we need.  After all, somebody preached this morning that God will do what God will do!  But brothers and sisters, partners in the spread of the love of God and fellow inviters to the Marriage Feast, to you and I has been given the most wonderful and heaviest responsibility in the world.  You and I have been tasked by the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, with the sharing of His Gospel.  Us.  Unremarkable and full of faults us.  No doubt, were you and I honest with ourselves and one another we would all think ourselves unworthy or ill-equipped or ill-suited to such a grand task.  And we would be correct.  Yet God Himself tasks us and promises to equip us.  And here we are.  We are gathered 2000 years later, 6000 miles distant, from the account we read this morning, giving thanks to God for His work in us through Christ our Lord!  His crazy marketing campaign has survived Rome and countless other local oppressors and persecutors.  It has crossed a great ocean.  It has crossed however many ethnic and cultural boundaries to reach each one of us.  It has even survived death!  And in a place where people are free, we gather to celebrate that He would stoop to choose us, that He would choose not just to save us, but to use us, each one of us, in His effort to reach the world!  I pray, that we who are so tasked, will be made worthy of such honor and wisdom by His grace and to His glory!

In Christ’s Peace,

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The illumination of Paul and us!

     I shared with 8 o’clocker’s it was a dangerous time for y’all to show up at church.  I was at Colloquium this past week and able to do some serious study.  To make matters worse, our lecturer focused us on the spirituality of some of the early Church fathers.  We were knee deep in the works of Origen, Evagrius, Maximus Confessor, Augustine, and others, so you know I was having a good time!  Too much study can lead to too long sermons.  I learned that lesson back in Ohio.  Too much study can also lead to lectures rather than sermons.  What was weird to me, though, even with all the study, was the sermon I had from early in the week stayed pretty much the same.  I got to read some commentary on the psalm, but no switch in sermon.  I read some Gospel commentaries, but no new sermon came to me.  I even did a bit of reading on Revelation this week wondering if I was ignoring it because of prior warnings by pastors I respect.  As you have figured out, I landed early in the week on Acts.  I landed on two particular points about the reading from Acts that did not change even after I spent some time reading commentaries on the book of Acts.  My issue, of course, was with the illustrations.  Thankfully, God was in the midst of that problem.  While I might have wished He’d point out the illustrations to use last Monday or Tuesday, He probably knew I’d be tempted not to use my time away for good study.  This way, He kept me working!
     Our story from Acts today is too well known.  It’s sometimes referred to as the conversion of Paul.  Having spent some time wrestling with the writings of experts, I’m sort of the mind that such is an unfair description of Paul’s experience.  It is not as if Paul was not zealous for God prior to this encounter with Jesus.  Rather, Paul’s mind was not fully illumined regarding the work and person of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, prior to this encounter.  Since it’s a blinding flash, literally, and an experience that causes Paul to re-evaluate what he has been taught, and it is the same God Whom he follows before and after the experience, I think I lean to the “Let’s call this the illumination of Paul” camp rather than the conversion of Paul camp.  Don’t groan, I told y’all I did some reading this week!
     The story is, as I said, well known.  Paul is zealous in his service of God and he is doing his absolute best to stamp out these folks trying to lead others in the Way of the Christ.  Paul held the cloaks and encouraged those who stoned Stephen to death, so this attitude should not surprise us.  He asks for and receives letters of authorization to stamp out these misleaders from among the Jewish communities in Damascus.  Along the road, there is a blinding flash, and a voice speaks to Paul.  Paul asks who it is that speaks and learns it is non other than Jesus.  Jesus instructs Paul to get up and go to the city.  There, he will learn what it is he is called to do.
     I will add here, of course, that Paul’s reputation precedes his arrival.  When Jesus instructs Ananias to pray for Paul, Ananias is understandably resistant.  Paul’s reputation as one fighting the early followers of The Way, precedes him.  Ananias obeys Jesus when He instructs him, but He does not do so without misgivings or even wondering if his Lord was sure about the instructions.  That’s a sermon for another passage and another day, though.
     The story is well known.  Y’all have been nodding and following along well.  I wonder, though, if it is not too well known and too common that we skim it rather than pay attention to significance to us.  Specifically, we are in the season of Easter.  The alleluias are in all the hymns.  Our focus has shifted from self-examinations of our sins and our need for a Savior to contemplating the impact of the Resurrection on our life.  To use the language of one of my colleagues this past week, we are no longer flogging ourselves for being the miserable wretches or sinners that we are.  That work, though, has been replaced by the consideration of the Resurrection of Christ.  What does it mean to you and to me if that Tomb was empty?  Our reading on Paul’s story gives us one significant reminder.
     What does Jesus say to Paul?  Why do you persecute Me?  As your nods and expressions have indicated, you know this story well.  Nearly everyone knew Paul held the cloaks of those stoning Stephen to death.  Nearly everyone seems to know that Paul was zealous in his defense of the torah, the Temple, and even Yahweh.  How does Jesus treat that persecution of those who first turned to Him?  That’s right!  Jesus tells Paul, and us, that his persecution of them is a persecution of Him!  Stoning Stephen was a stoning of Him.  Placing them in jail was placing Him in jail.  Flogging them was flogging Him.  Mocking them was mocking Him.  I understand Paul hears this in ways we do not.  Paul has got this horrible pastoral problem that he is meeting the supposed blasphemer who was hung on a tree after His death.  Our minds do not need the re-ordering of Paul.  Presumably, all of us present already believe Jesus was raised from the dead.  We publicly affirmed it, after all, at our baptisms and confirmations, and we have reaffirmed it at every baptism and confirmation we have attended since.  We remind ourselves of His Resurrection every time we say the creeds.  We are, to use my earlier language, already illumined in some ways about the Resurrection.  That we are celebrating that Resurrection 2000 years later and some 6000 miles distant is in its own way a testimony to our belief in the Resurrection.  But do we plumb the depths of its importance to us?  Sure, most of us, when pressed, will tell others we expect to be raised from the dead.  Some of us who really think of such things, will wrestle with questions of whether it’s really bodily and, if so, which body.  Y’all are laughing, but some of you have told me you hope it’s your body of a certain age, while others hope they get one way different.  That latter desire then worries them that others may not know them in the next life.
     What about today?  What does Jesus question of Paul remind us about the significance of the Resurrection to us in this day and in this place?  Think back to your baptism, or the baptismal rite which was used in your infancy.  What happened?  You were baptized into His death and promised eternal life, right?  Whether you did the liturgical baptism and confirmation path or you did the “believer’s” baptism path, you were bound to God.  Bound.  A covenant was made by God regarding each one of you and me.  We promised to follow and obey God, recognizing our actions would either honor or dishonor Him in the world around us.  When we dishonor Him, by sinning, we promised to repent and try again.  That’s all familiar, right?  Right?
     What about the oath made by God?  What does He promise those baptized into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?  Certainly, new life is one of those promises.  Yes, that we will be resurrected, too, is a promise.  But what about Jesus’ question of Paul today?  In our baptisms, God reminds us that He is bound to us, just as we are bound to Him.  When we are dishonored, He is dishonored.  When we suffer, He suffers.  When we are mocked and ridiculed, He is mocked and ridiculed.  It’s that binding, brothers and sisters, that allows us to give up our need for vengeance.  God has promised that He suffers with us and that He will avenge!  In the end, you and I and all who call upon His name will be, what, called to share in His glory for all eternity!  We will be shown to have chosen wisely, to use the words of Indiana Jones.  We will be shown to having repented of our sins and redeemed by His Son our Lord.
     Do we live as if we truly believe in that binding covenant we profess every time we remind ourselves of His covenant?  Are we hesitant to speak His words and wisdom into conversations with friends and families and co-workers because we don’t want to be seen as a “Jesus freak?”  Our we miserly when it comes to those resources which He has given us to steward for fear we might make bad decisions, might be taken advantage of, or might be being conned, thereby limiting the resources available to us and to a God we claim created all things?  Do we really live as if we believe that when we are mocked for our faith, He is mocked; if we are excluded because of our faith, He is excluded; if we are ripped off because we are doing the things He commanded, He is the real victim of the thief or grifter?
     I am guessing by your expressions now, though I knew it when this sermon appeared in my head on Monday, we give such examination short shrift.  We maybe try hard to focus on our obligations to Him, but we do not spend much time considering the way He has chosen to bind Himself to us.  Yet here we are all, reading Luke’s narrative regarding Paul’s illumination.  Jesus treats the persecutions of Paul as if they were done to Him.  It’s part of the reason when we gather each time for the Eucharist that we remind ourselves that in receiving His Body and Blood we are made one body with Him, that He may dwell in us, and we in Him!  One of the truths supported by the Resurrection is the promise that He is with us always.  When we suffer for Him, He suffers; when we are glorified for our obedient work to Him, He is glorified.  When we are persecuted, He is persecuted!  It’s an amazing truth!  It’s incredibly freeing!  We can do whatever God is calling us to do confident, absolutely confident, of its importance and that we are the ones for that particular work at that particular time.  No matter the odds, He wins; and thus we share in His victory!  It may not work the way we expect or hope, but we can be confident it will, because He will.
     That truth leads me to the other teaching of the week.  This one you may have heard before, but I am certain we need to hear it again.  There is no limit to what God can accomplish through the obedient faith of one person.  That you and I sit here today in modern Nashville is yet testimony to Paul’s eventual obedience.  God took all of Paul’s characteristics and molded him into an incredible witness or ambassador.  God used Paul’s privilege as a Roman citizen to speak into the ears of the ANE powerful and privileged.  God used Paul’s rabbinicly trained mind to reach the philosophers and sophists of the Greek culture.  God used Paul’s zealous nature to work constantly for the spread of the Gospel.  The truth is, the importance of one faithful obedient servant can never be overstated.
     This is where I struggled with a sermon illustration.  My temptation was to share the fight against slavery, but it felt wrong, even when I was focusing on the stories of others who have taught me in that fight.  But God is always faithful, even in little things like sermons.
     A few weeks ago, I was invited to meet the general who tapped Nathan as one of those men who might one day succeed him protecting this country.  Many of you already know this from other forums, and it will be limited in the printed version for obvious reasons, but this particular general, having been alerted about Nathan thanks to a colonel, decided to recruit Nathan for some special work.  And Nathan jumped at the opportunity.  Mom and Dad, of course, were worried.  In addition to the normal fears of parents in that situation, we both wondered at the emotional and spiritual burden that could be placed upon our son.  That line of work places demands on human beings that human beings are not supposed to experience.  If Nathan follows this path and is successful, he will see things neither I nor Karen want him to see, he will do things neither of us want him to do.  And here was a general recruiting Nathan, encouraging Nathan, then only a teenager, that he was the perfect tool for this work.
     Anyway, the general was going to be in town speaking at a Church of Christ church.  This would be a good opportunity for us to meet face to face.  He could get to know me better and I him.  Besides, he was not sure how many people would turn out for the event.  If nobody came, we could have a long private conversation.  It turns out the event was at a non-denom church this past Friday.  I and only 2000 of my closest brothers in Christ showed up on a Friday night to hear the general speak.  Can you imagine getting 2000 men to show up at anything Christian on a Friday night?  I learned later they consider themselves warriors for Christ, so the high attendance makes sense.
     In truth, I was a bit disappointed at the high turnout.  I had really hoped to spend some time one on one with him.  I have friends, clergy friends and former parishioners, who . . . still suffer the effects of this kind of work.  In all the dreams for my son’s life, this was not in my top anything list.  The general began to give his testimony.  He shared some stories of God’s redemptive work in his life.  He spoke rather in terms of God’s miraculous hand.  And I found myself in that weird place where I had heard several of his stories, but from a more, for lack of a better word, secular perspective.
     His second or third story to the group was about a failed attempt to rescue forcefully the American hostages in the Iranian embassy.  As he shared his side of the story, I was a college kid again, sitting in a Morton classroom one evening, listening to another general’s version of these events only after we had put our pens and pencils down.  As he shared another story of Somalia, I was drinking a beer and playing cards with another colleague, who, at the time, shared his night terrors surrounding those same events and even the same guilt regarding the deaths of others.  With only one exception, I had heard each of his stories from another witness.  In each of those stories, they had expressed how lucky they had been or how crazy it had been that events did not turn out why they should.  And here was God’s version of Paul Harvey with the “rest of the story.”
     Though the words were different, even the deaf could have heard God’s reminder to me.  Even in those places where angels should not tread, He is at work.  In those places and in those times where we think Him to be the most removed, He is still redeeming.  And it is often the obedient faith of one glorious son or daughter who is identified by others as the mouthpiece through whom He speaks.  That God could use an event like that to give me some peace that I did not know I needed would be enough for most of us.  In truth, it was enough for me.  But God was not done.  When we remind ourselves that He does more than we can ask or imagine, they are not empty words.  They should be a statement of our faith.
     After the lecture and concert, I chatted with the general.  I shared briefly that I was in a much different place than before his speech.  We chatted about what I knew about his stories but, more importantly, what those folks had shared about those stories.  And I confessed it had been a good spiritual wedgie for me because I had not reconsidered those stories in light of my faith and post-ordination, where it became my professional job to share with others where God was at work in the world around us.  That provoked other conversations and stories which were interrupted by others and have no part in this teaching.
     Rather, it was the interruptions that are part of this teaching.  This general had spent time sharing some amazing stories of God’s redemptive work in the world to a lot of men.  As we were first speaking, he looked over my should and said “here come the “yabuts.”  It took a couple soldiers and sailors for me to realize he meant “yeah, but . . . “.  Quite a number of individual servicemen came up to him after the event to thank him.  He thanked each one for their service, and they reciprocated.  More than one marine threatened him good-naturedly about the jokes he told at their expense.  But then came the serious work.  Nearly every soldier expressed a version of “Generally, I hear you.  I know you believe God wants us all to serve Him, and that He will forgive us, but you have no idea what I’ve done.”
     Let me say first and foremost, Jerry was the perfect pastor in all this.  For some of these men he listened a bit to their excuses.  For some, though, he cut them off.  Each response to their “yeah, but” went something along the lines of “yes.  I do know what you did because I likely did it, too.  They call war hell for a reason young man.  It’s part of the fall; it’s evil.  But remember this: men like me ordered you into those situations.  We ordered you into those times and spaces and events which convince you that you are beyond God’s saving embrace.  Each of us carries that guilt, and the guilt of being the one who sent too many others to their deaths.”
     As he said a couple times, he’s old and not much into soft-peddling any more, if he ever was.  It was a perspective and truth, though, those soldiers and sailors needed to hear, each and every one of them, as the evening wore on in Middle Tennessee.  Nobody, me included, would not have blamed Jerry if he slipped out to visit with family.  Instead, he greeted each one of those “yeah buts” with an even greater truth, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And he spoke in a voice that had seen what they had seen, done what they had done, and with the authority of a commanding officer, and the conviction of one who is redeemed!  And in that same voice, and in the same understanding, he shared the certainty of his faith that God wanted nothing more than to redeem their suffering, too.
     I share that part of the story after a day full of my own reflection for your consideration.  Which do you think was more amazing?  Are you more blown away by the fact that God used the faith of a young soldier to help be His mouthpiece, His witness, in some of the darkest battlefields on earth?  Or do you think it was that same faithful servant’s willingness to speak to others individually of that redeeming grace of God?  Or are you more impressed by the impact his words had on a professional Christian you call your priest?  Was it the reweaving of stories and events that I knew already?  Was it the willingness of a public servant to risk the mocking and derisive snorts?  Maybe you find something else far more amazing, far more wonderful.  But isn’t that, too, part of how God works, amazing us how we, individually, need to be amazed, reaching out to us in the way we each need to be reached!
     God is asking of you the same obedience he asked of Paul 2000 years ago and Jerry just a couple generations ago.  We have all the same “yeah but’s” that He has heard since the days of Adam and Eve.  Still, He has chosen each one of us to be a vessel of His grace in this generation.  Yes, the story of salvation history is amazing, but God thought it would be more amazing to others if it included you.  In our day, in our time, and in our place, He is asking each one of us to do the work He has given us to do, that the story of salvation and redemptive history might be made even more beautiful by those who are drawn to His saving embrace by our faithful obedience to His loving call on both our own lives and theirs!

In Christ’s Peace,