Monday, June 29, 2015

Of daughters (and sons) . . . and faith!

     It would have been fun, in light of some conversations this week and then between the two services, to spend some time looking at 2 Samuel.  It is a fearful, frightening thing to kill or oppose God’s anointed.  We should remember that, when we are involved in a ministry to which God calls us, and we encounter opposition.  Certainly our relationship to God is different than the covenant He offered Saul and kept with David, but it is no less meaningful.  And, in light of what is happening in the world around us, it might be tempting to discuss the relation of Jonathan and Saul and what David means by saying that his love for Jonathan surpasses that of women.  But, as a group, I do not think that our issue at Advent.  Our issue, as the Holy Cow suggested, was that we do not claim our heritage as adopted sons and adopted daughters of our Father in heaven.

     That being said, I really wanted us to look at Mark’s Gospel this morning.  For all those who have visited with me, argued with me, and drank with me as they tried to convince me I was wrong in my insistence that God has a calling or callings for everyone, Mark is the perfect antidote.

     Our story begins with Jesus arriving back on the Jewish side of the sea.  Mark, as you have all noticed, particularly those of you who drop in for Tom’s and Larry’s Bible study between the services, is sort of the Joe Friday of the Gospel writers.  Mark gives us the facts and just the facts.  There is little fluff; and there is a lot of “immediately’s.”   Mark describes what Jesus did so that we might make a decision as to who Jesus is and was and will be.  After the casting out of the demons, Jesus heads back across the sea.  Upon landing there Jairus meets him and kneels with a request.  We know that Jairus is unique for several reasons.  One, Mark names him.  Few people whom Jesus encounters in Mark’s Gospel get named.  That, in and of itself, is reason enough for us to sit up and take notice.  But we learn he is like our Senior or Junior wardens at the synagogue.  He is not addressed as Rabbi and no one accords him the respect as one who reads from the scrolls, but he clearly serves some important role in the synagogue.  The people who follow him, who come to him and tell him to stop wasting the Rabbi’s time, and the size of the number of mourners at his house upon the arrival tell us he has some authority akin to a warden or member of the Vestry.  Why are you all laughing?

     Anyway, this Jairus comes to Jesus and kneels and asks the Healer if He will lay hands on his daughter who is near death.  The gallows humor of a few moments ago informs the desperation of Jairus.  This may shock you, but Wardens and Vestry members and, yes, priests do not always have an abiding sense of control.  More often than not, all three groups are walking that fine line between nothing getting done and making people mad.  Push too hard, people get mad and quit coming.  Don’t push enough, and nothing gets done.  Yes, I see the nods of agreement.

     Jairus, though, has heard of Jesus’ healings.  He has no idea about Jesus’ identity as the Incarnation.  Things such as soteriology and Christology mean nothing to him.  All he knows is that this Jesus has performed some incredible healings.  The miracles of Jesus testify to the fact that He is certainly sent by God, and so Jairus begs Jesus to consent to save his little daughter.  Can you imagine the fear?  The pain?  The worry about failure?  Jairus has all that.  His daughter is beyond his help, and he cannot bear the thought of losing her.  And so he asks Jesus to come and heal her.

     As great as his worry and fear and doubts must have been, can we imagine the heights of his elation at Jesus’ response?  Thanks be to God, He will heal her!  I can see Jairus doing those inner celebratory somersaults.  I can well imagine he turned to his confidants and aides present with all kinds of excited “He said He would do it!”

     Then a funny thing happened on the way to heal his daughter.  As Jairus’ burdens have been lifted, Jesus stops in the midst of the crowd.  Who touched me?  The Apostles and disciples answer with a sarcastic “Who hasn’t touched you?  Look at the crowd” kind of response.  Jairus must have been chafing at the bit.  Who cares?  Save my daughter.  You promised!  Mark often sandwiches one story within a story so that we might better understand some of the lessons and teachings he wishes to impart.  This is one of those sandwiches.

     Mark tells us that a woman has been hemorrhaging for twelve years.  I know we live in a culture that does not like to speak about “that time of the month” except in certain commercials, but we cannot begin to grasp what this uterine bleeding meant for the woman in question.  Because she is bleeding down there, she is ritually impure.  In practical terms, she is no better than a leper.  She is not allowed in the synagogue and she is not allowed in the Temple.  She is cut off from her form of church.  My guess is, people being people, that she was the scorn of all who lived near her, all who had the possibility of interacting with her, of all who might bump into her at market or at a well.  You see, if you touched a menstruating woman, you became unclean as well.  You could not return to worship until you made the appropriate sacrifices.  Those sacrifices, we all know, cost money.  Who wants to spend their hard-earned denarius being made clean because they touched a menstruating woman?  Who wanted to risk sitting where she sat?

     We might assume she was a widow, to boot.  Mark does not tell us she is widowed.  Maybe the husband simply left.  Mark does tell us that she spent all that she had seeking a cure, not all that she and her husband had.  And let’s face it, what guy is going to hang around with a middle age wife whose very existence makes him unclean?  No, her life is harder than we could ever imagine.  It has cost her her ability to lean on neighbors.  It has cost her her ability to have true friends.  And the disease?  It’s only gotten worse under the treatment by all those doctors.  Now this Jesus, this man who has been working incredible, awesome miracles of healing is present.  If she can but touch his cloak, she knows she will be healed.  Sure enough, she is right.  She feels what has happened to her body immediately and slinks back into the crowd and anonymity.

     Except Jesus will have none of that.  He stops and asks who touched Him.  Poor Jairus.  What must he think of this delay?  The disciples think Jesus is nuts for asking.  Who hasn’t touched the Master as they pushed through the crowd?  But Jesus will have none of that.  He demands an answer.

     Those of us in modern America might think Jesus is being cruel.  All the lady did was touch His cloak.  She knew what the touch would mean for His ritual cleanliness, but she was concerned for her own healing.  She was desperate.  Who could not empathize with her situation.  But Jesus wants to know, or does He already know? . . .

     In fear and trembling, we are told, the lady re-approaches the Rabbi and confesses that it was her.  No doubt the crowd recognizes her.  No doubt people began to freak out that they were now unclean and unable to go to worship without being purified.  She tells Jesus the whole truth.  I thought that if I touched your cloak, I would be healed.  For the only time in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus addresses a woman as Daughter.  “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

     There are several important lessons for us in this story, and we will cover them in a moment with the resulting lessons of Jairus’ daughter, but think of the healing and restoration granted to this woman.  She has been an outcast for twelve years.  She has spent every denarius she had on cures, and she is no better for the monies spent.  At some point, she had to realize that she was spending money she would need to live in the future on the doctors.  But she chose to risk her future on the ability to have friends, family, neighbors, and strangers able to be in her present.  Her isolation drove her to make a horrible choice.  And it failed!  Now, in a bit of a Hail Mary, if you will excuse the pun, she touches the cloak of Jesus and is given an amazing healing.  She knows the bleeding has stopped, and she is content with that.  Jesus, who desires more than we can ask or imagine for ourselves, asks who touched Him.  And when she confesses the truth to Him, He restores her to Israel!  He, a man of God, calls her daughter!  Can you imagine the buzz?  He is not mad that He needs to be purified.  He calls her daughter, pronounces that her faith has healed her, and tells her to go in peace in front of the crowd!  All those who shunned her have heard this Jesus readmit her to the people of God.  The story will go forth that He healed her, that she is no longer an object of scorn.  Better still, He called her daughter.

     Here’s a question for those of you who thought Jesus was mean to single her out: After His death and Resurrection, after people begin to realize that He is and was the Son of God, what will it mean to her to have been called daughter?  What will it mean to her neighbors, as she ages and faces the vagaries of life, that Messiah called her daughter?

     Jairus, of course, is not thinking about any of this.  We can well imagine his impatience.  I’m sure he was trying to hurry Jesus along without wanting to offend Jesus.  The woman has been bleeding for twelve years.  My daughter may die today if You don’t get a move on!  And, as Jesus is speaking with the woman and restoring her in the eyes of the crowd, messengers arrive from the house.  It is too late.  Jairus’ daughter is dead.  Jairus must have wanted to lash out at Jesus for dawdling, at the crowd for hindering their progress, at the lady for her presumptive interruption and the distraction it caused.  Jesus hears the words of the messengers and says to Jairus, though, not to fear.  In fact, Jesus tells Jairus to faith.  We will talk a bit more in a moment about Jesus’ instruction, but Jesus reminds the father what brought him to Jesus in the first place.

     Upon their arrival at the house, the small procession hears the mourners at work.  Jesus asks why they are carrying on so, since the girl is but sleeping.  The mourners laughed at Him.  They know death.  Their livelihood depends upon it.  Jesus puts everyone out of the house except the girl’s mother, Jairus, Peter, James, and John.  He grabs the girl’s hand and, for the first time in Mark’s Gospel, speaks in Aramaic.  He says, “Little girl, get up.”  Amazingly, she does!  The twelve year old girl gets up and starts to walk about.  So that they and we would understand she is not a ghost, Jesus orders her fed.  Then He strictly orders the family and Apostles to say nothing of what He has just done.

     Two incredible stories.  We would think that each deserves its own telling.  The miracle of the hemorrhaging woman is a wonderful testimony to God who does more than we can ever ask or imagine.  And the power over death!  Talk about amazing.  Yet Mark sandwiches one within the other to teach us a great deal about faith.  Both are, in Mark’s eyes, necessary if we are to understand what Jesus revealed about faith  So what do we learn about faith two thousand years removed from this story, never mind the miles and cultural differences?

     The first thing we learn about faith is that it is the means by which we appropriate the power of God, our inheritance, if you will, as His adopted sons and His adopted daughters.  When we celebrate the Eucharist using the words of Rite 1, I always speak the words “ . .  . and through faith in His Blood, we and all Thy whole Church, may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of His passion.”  What does that mean when we pray that?  What benefits do we think we are getting besides forgiveness of sins?  Those of you who only celebrate Rite 2 now have probably forgotten that part of our service, but it’s there on page 335.  If the Eucharist is a pledge of our inheritance, what is it that we think we are inheriting?  Even our liturgy reminds us, though, that our faith is the key to both the remission of our sins and the access to those other benefits.

     Notice, too, there is no right or wrong faith.  The warden kneels before Jesus and begs Him to come and heal his daughter.  The woman approaches Him convinced by faith that the touch of His mere cloak will hear her.  Jesus commends them both for their faith.  Jesus accomplishes their hearts desire because of that faith.

     Too often, brothers and sisters, we must be in desperation before we begin to have the kind of faith evidenced in this story.  The woman thought her money and the expertise of the doctors would cure her.  Jairus was moved to the point of falling on his knees before Jesus.  Each, in their own way, knew that they were insufficient.  Each came to realize that there was a limit to their resources, to their power, to the knowledge, to their abilities.  It was only when they reached that point that they were moved to seek God incarnate in Christ.  It was only when everything in the world around them had failed that they turned to the One who could save.  We know this.  Yet how often do go through life never really thinking about our faith?  How often do we think our resources, our prestige, our strength, our wisdom, our whatever will be sufficient for us?  How often do not really turn in faith to the One who would call us Son or Daughter?

     The second import lesson for us Adventers about faith, I think, is that it requires dogged determination or perseverance.  Think of the courage of the woman as she worked her way through the crowd.  At any moment, someone might recognize her and call out.  What, in her mind’s fears, do you think would happen then?  The Rabbi would shrink from her touch?  The crowd would cry out for her punishment or death?  And yet she fights her way through the crowd to get to the One whom she knows is sent by God.  If I but touch His cloak, I will be healed!

     More amazingly, I think, is the persistence that she shows in light of Jesus’ question.  Who touched Me?  She wants nothing more than to slink away back into the crowd.  She has felt His power in her body, but she still does not want anyone to know she was there, that she presumed?  Who touched Me?  In fear and trembling, we are told, she goes back to Jesus and tells Him the truth.  She just knew the Holy Man was going to be mad.  She just knew the crowd was going to be enraged.  But she came back to Jesus, knelt before Him, and told Him the truth.  For her persevering faith, she is named a Daughter of her Father in Heaven.  She is no longer a byword, someone to be scorned; she is a Daughter of God!  Talk about appropriating a benefit of His passion!

     And poor Jairus, what of him?  He is nothing but polite in his journey with Jesus.  No matter what was happening below the surface, Jairus was outwardly deferential to Jesus.  And when Jesus tells him in the face of his daughter’s death not to fear, Jairus faiths!  Jairus trusts that Jesus can do something about his daughter, even though the messengers are whispering in his ear.  Don’t bother the Teacher any longer.  She is dead.  How long must that walk have seemed to Jairus with those whispers.  Yet he places one foot in front of the other, following the Healer.

     Once they get to the house, the situation is no better.  The mourners are there wailing in full chorus.  When Jesus asserts she is but asleep, the mourners scoff at Him.  Still, Jairus follows.  When Jesus puts everyone out of the house, Jairus and his wife are allowed to stay.  And for their courage in the face of death, for their persisting faith, they get to witness their daughter brought back from the dead!  Nothing like this has happened since the days of Elijah!

     Another lesson we learn about faith is that it is accompanied by action.  Faith is a verb of doing.  We cannot rightly claim to be faithful Christians and not be working to love our Lord and love our neighbors.  We can cluck all day like chickens about this evil or that evil, but if we are not acting against those evil in faith, we are abandoning our inheritance, we are not being faithful.

     I was watching Evan Almighty yesterday with an eye to today.  It’s a cute movie based loosely on Noah.  What saves everyone?  It is Evan’s faith in God that causes him to build that ark.  Evan is mocked and derided; his neighbors and colleagues in the house poke fun at him.  They even turn to the legal authorities to try and stop him.  But Evan builds the ark, trusting that God has a purpose.  His faith in God saves all those who end up on the ark.  But his faith would have been worthless too all had he not first acted on it!

     Jairus is moved to greet Jesus and kneel before Him as a supplicant.  The woman had to work her way through the crowd and touch His cloak.  Each had a different way of acting, but neither could sit back and wait for the desire of their faith to be realized.  Both had work to do and did it

     The last lesson, I think, that we learn about faith in this story is that Jesus is the only appropriate object of faith.  Sometimes we may not understand the question, but we sure know the answer is Jesus!  Make no mistake, there is no quiz on doctrine espoused in this story.  Jesus never says to the warden, “You do not rightly understand Me as Messiah, therefore soteriology prevents Me from acting on your behalf.”  He never says to the woman, “Your touching of my cloak smacks of magic rather than the divination of God’s intents and purposes for His people; I, therefore withhold my healing and blessing from you.”  You laugh, but how often do we put up such barriers to other who are seeking God in and through Christ?  How often do we put up litmus tests of our own choosing, rather than God’s, to limit who we want in His circle of “the faithful?”  We pick and choose acceptable sins.  We pick and choose the kinds of people who can join us.  And we tell ourselves and others that we are right to make those choices.

     Jesus’ response to the faith of these two individuals teaches us that our barriers are not His barriers.  To the woman whose faith seems simplistic to some and magic-seeking of others, He was the Healer.  To the man who saw Jesus as a man of God, He was every bit the Miracle Worker.  All He asks for is the best faith in Him that we can give!  That’s it.  The rest is up to Him!

     Of course, I am mindful that we are still left with a horrible pastoral problem in the minds of some this morning.  Some of you sitting here have been doing a checklist in your minds.  Yes, I have faith in God.  Yes, I am persistent.  Yes, I act on my faith.  Yes, I believe that Jesus is the answer to my problem.  I have all “yesses;” why does God not act for me?  It is a struggle which God’s enemy uses to convince us that God does not really care about us and our situations or that we are irredeemable, but that Mark’s “rest of the story” so eloquently speaks God’s peace into our lives.  Into what world, brothers and sisters, was the healed woman sent?  Into what world was Jairus’ daughter raised?  Ours.  Both were left to face a life full of the vagaries and vicissitudes we take for granted.  We know the healed woman faced life with meager resources.  Jairus’ daughter is only twelve and, as Jesus has not returned, experienced illness and death once more.  How do you think they faced life and its storms?

     Both would always have the healing in their life to reflect upon.  Both knew that the true hope in their lives was Jesus.  Nothing could take that away, neither bleeding nor death.  Over and over, I pray to God for you all.  In my few short months among you, I have prayed for deliverance from disease for individuals here gathered, for deliverance from death for an individual no longer gathered among us, for abundance in the face of poverty, for restoration in the wake of broken relationships.  I understand and share your frustration.  Why doesn’t God answer me?  I am guessing that the woman and Jairus’ daughter would share our frustration, too.  They experienced His Healing but likely did not at times later in life.  But even if none of us had experienced miraculous healings or provision or other blessings in our own lives, we still have the promise of the Cross and Empty Tomb!  We know that God is sufficient to meet whatever transpires against us!  Just because He chooses not to act does not mean He lacks the capacity or power to act.  We are called to a faith in Jesus that understands He may use our suffering, and our responses to the suffering of those around us, to His honor and His glory.  Our relationship to Him as an adopted Daughter or an adopted Son means that sometimes we are the suffering servants in the lives of others.  But, and never forget this, our status as His Daughters and as His Sons means that He never abandons us.  As committed as He was to Israel and the world through their respective failures and opposition, He is just as committed to us through ours!  Even if the world seems to win and conquer us, even if the storms overwhelm us and take our lives, He has promised that we will be with Him always, even to the end of the age!  He can no more refuse to raise us, than He would choose to have kept His power from going forth into the daughters of whom we read today!  And in the end, we serve a God who, in His power and majesty, sees our death as mere sleep.  In the end, or in the Day of Judgement, when His enemies and our enemies are mocking us for His obvious failure or abandonment, we know that He will cast them out and call us forth from our slumber, not content to feed us a bit of food, but to take us to the Feast.



Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Of Goliaths and storms in our lives . . .

     Our lesson from the Old Testament and our lesson from the Gospel lesson are well known, indeed.  There is enough residual Christianity in the world around us that many non-Christians can recite the basic details of David and Goliath and know the basic story of Jesus calming the storm.  No doubt you  have sat in pews here or in other churches and listened to sermons that promised you that God would slay your Goliaths or calm your storms.  No doubt the sermons inspired you until you ran into that next Goliath or that next hurricane in life.  Truthfully, brothers and sisters, I struggled a bit this week on this sermon.  You have all been very kind these first few months with respect to my sermons.  I know a number of you live for the practical application.  You have told me that’s the best part of my sermons and teaching.  We preachers do God a terrible disservice, I think, when we fail to bring His wisdom, His instruction, into the world around us.  When we fail to bring His instruction to bear on our current situations, I think people in the pews are left with a “so what!  How is that supposed to help me?”

     I say that because I had a horrible time thinking of modern applications for the message I think I was being encouraged to convey this week.  We know from experience that God does not always slay our Goliaths and that He does not always calm the storms in our lives.  Each of us can point to Goliaths in our lives or storms in our lives where we think we barely made it out, where God seems to have let an obvious Goliath live or a terrible storm rage, no matter our fervent prayers.  Collectively, of course, the big Goliath, death, seems to have won the battle yet again, and one of our families, as well as their close friends in the parish, are struggling in a storm of mourning.  I’m speaking, of course, of George and Babs and the rest of the family.  All of us prayed to God to heal our beloved brother.  God, by worldly measures, seems to have turned a deaf ear to George, to Babs, to Georgie and Dee, and to anyone else who interceded.  Now, we are left in the swirl of a storm.  There is the pain of George’s absence for some; there is the worry that maybe our faith impacted God’s response; and there is the worry that we might not be up to the task of ministering to George’s family, who are the ones really battling Goliath and storms right now.

     Even the news cycle seems to be testifying against the idea that God slays the Goliaths and stills the storms in the lives of His people.  Unless you were vacationing on Pluto this week, you probably watched coverage of the massacre in Charleston.  A Bible Study invited a young man into their midst.  After some time in prayer and study, the young man opened fire, all the while shouting horrible, hateful things at his intended victims.  If God cares for His people like so many of us believe and teach, if God slays the Goliaths in our lives, where was He when this group of people needed Him?  These weren’t just “Christians” in name only, these weren’t just Christians who come to church for worship on Sundays; these were brothers and sisters who took seriously God’s command that they study His Word.  They took it so seriously that they welcomed a stranger into their midst to study Him and His Word more.  And look what it got them.

     By Thursday, of course, I was starting to get worried about modern applications.  The Goliaths and storms dancing around in my head were defeats.  No David had wrestled the gunman to the floor saving lives; no Moses had interceded successfully with God on behalf of George and his death.  Even the illustrations my colleagues suggested seemed impersonal.  One suggested I preach on William Wilberforce and his allies in the fight against slavery.  This colleague had noticed I had not used much human trafficking imagery with you yet, but that seemed a stretch comparing Wilberforce, a man with power, to a young boy named David.  Another was going to use Rosa Parks and her efforts in light of this newest tragedy to preach about gun limits.  I liked the idea of Rosa, a black lady in the South, as a modern fill-in for David.  I obviously loved the idea for the need of courageous people to change the world in significant ways.  I cannot say, however, that I think the best use of the deaths of those martyrs is gun control.  There are far too many more significant possibilities of redemption in their martyrdom, such as the press’ fascination with their families’ willingness to forgive the young man who took their lives.  And yet, we all know there are Goliaths and storms waiting around the corner to assault us.  So, what shall we do?  Trust that the Holy Spirit will speak specifics into your heart and into your mind.

     Our OT lesson begins with an interesting scene.  The armies of Israel and the Philistines are facing one another for battle.  A giant of a man has come forth and proposed a battle of champions.  The two chosen men will fight, thus sparing bloodshed for the rest of the armies.  Unfortunately for God’s people, the champion of the army is so big that his name will become synonymous with giant.  The bible gives us a great description of Goliath, his armor and weapons, and his attitude.  He is, to use the words of the psalmist, a mocker of God and God’s people.  Of course, he would seem to have reason to believe that he should mock.  Of all the men standing before him claiming to serve in the Lord’s army, not one is willing to come forth and face him in battle, not even its king.

     Saul, you might remember from last week and the week before, has had God’s Spirit taken from him.  Saul has refused to obey God and, unlike his successor, to repent when he has sinned against God.  Saul is, as his cowardice before Goliath demonstrates, king in name only.

     Meanwhile, Jesse has been supporting the commander of the squad of men that oversees his sons.  From time to time, Jesse sends supplies to the commander via his youngest son David, ensuring that his sons have food and drink and anything else they might need.  However many times a week, David heads back home from the flock, gathers the supplies from his father, and dutifully carries them to the frontlines.  This trip, of course, is different.  David, now anointed by Samuel and full of God’s Spirit, hears the mocking derision of the uncircumcised giant.  As the giant continues to mock the Israeli army and, more importantly, God, David is incensed.  We are told he finally chews out his brothers and the men around them, asking why they don’t go teach this fool of a giant who really is God.  The brothers, for their part, tell their younger brother to shut up.  If they listen to him, they will surely be killed.  It is one thing to worship God; it is another to rush headlong into one’s death.

     David, furious at the dishonor being shown before God, then decides he will slay this giant.  David goes to Saul and says he will kill the giant.  Saul is so far removed from the Spirit of God that he even argues with the boy.  You cannot do this.  You are a boy; he is Goliath.  He has been a soldier since his youth.  Left unsaid is the “you are just a little shepherd boy.”  David, though, is having none of it.  He reminds the king that he has fought lions and wolves and bears to protect his flock.  The Lord who has protected him even as he has protected his flock will let him see this victory.  For Saul, such a rebuke should have stung doubly-hard.  The boy has taken up the role the king was supposed to fulfill.

     We then get this comical scene where Saul dresses David in his army.  In my mind, this looks like that scene in the Lord of the Rings where Gimli tries on the Elvish mail.  The mail was made for someone 6 and ½ feet tall.  On Gimli, a dwarf, it falls in a pile around him.  David realizes that the armor will encumber him more than help him, so he has it removed.  He chooses five smooth stones from the wadi and strolls forth to meet the enemy.

     Goliath is not impressed.  He mocks David, the army, and God.  David, of course, stands his ground.  When the giant threatens him, David tells him to prepare for his death.  The very God whom Goliath mocks will deliver him into the hand of David.  As Goliath strides forward, we are told that David hits him in the head with a stone from the sling.  Once again, God has delivered as promised.  He told Israel that He would deliver them without spear or sword.  Once again, He has kept His promise.  David has also kept his.  He takes Goliath’s sword and cuts off the giant’s head, leaving the dead body for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth.  If I am not going to promise you that God slays all your Goliaths and calms all your storms, how are we to read this story today?  How does God’s Word inform our lives these many thousands of miles and thousands of years distant?

     It seems to me there are a couple lessons we should take away from this Sunday’s readings.  I have been here now nearly six months.  Those of you who are bit braver have wondered into my office or elsewhere to question calls on your own lives.  I have had a few interesting discussions with people stressing about perceived calls.  As people have bravely shared possible calls by God on their lives, they have quickly followed those claims with the Goliaths that stand in their way.  I’m not trained to do mission trips.  I haven’t studied the Scriptures like you?  I’m not good at public speaking?  I don’t know where to start?  On days where I am less tired, I have probably reminded you that God does not always call the equipped, but He always equipped the called.  It is not so much that we need supernatural gifts and talents but to be reminded of the skills that we have and to direct them to His service.  How many rocks had David slung as a boy shepherd?  Our modern version might be shooting bottles or cans off fence rails, but I am sure shepherds had their own ways of practicing and of passing the time.  Plus, David had exercised this skill in the face of death.  Before battling Goliath, he reminds us that lions and wolves have turned on him, even as he sought to rescue his lambs.  David did not so much need supernatural guidance as a new target!  Similarly, you and I are prepared for whatever it is that God calls us, both individually and as a parish.  Our focus will be different, no doubt, but the skills are really just the skills.  Some may be the important need in a ministry; others may be the foundation for something far bigger, far greater, than we ever could have asked or imagined.  But that is how God works.  He delights in making the worldly wise look foolish, the worldly strong look weak, and the marginalized as near and dear to His heart.  If God is calling you to do something, you are equipped or you will be.

     How do we know?  His word and experience are certainly good teachers, but think especially of the motivation of our David this morning.  What drove him to fight Goliath?  Was it the likely fame and fortune?  Was it the opportunity to go live with Saul and be attended to day and night?  It was not.  Pay close attention to what motivates David.  He is consumed with zeal for the Lord.  What motivates David is not his own glory, his own well-being, but the honor and glory of the Lord whom he serves!  It is a characteristic he shares with martyrs and saints throughout the ages.  Even our collect today called upon us to have perpetual love and reverence for His holy name.  What if we considered whether every action we took and every word that we said honored or dishonored God?  They do, don’t they.  We dishonor God when we give the universal sign of respect to the guy who cut us off in traffic.  We dishonor God when we sheepishly look away as those men and women sell those papers on the side of the road at lights.  We dishonor God when we ignore worship, ignore prayer, ignore those things to which we know He calls us.  We dishonor God when we value ourselves and our own lives more than we value and trust in Him.  Thankfully, and mercifully, He has born the price of our dishonor.  Thankfully and mercifully, He asks us only to repent, and He forgives us.

     Brothers and sisters, I am not letting you in on a little secret this morning.  I am reminding you of what you already know and of what God has shown you.  There are always Goliaths and there are always storms in our way when we serve God.  I often wonder if the giants don't get bigger and the storms don't get stronger the more important the work.  No matter what it is you are called to do, you can bet that His Enemy wants nothing more than for you to fail.  His Enemy will create Goliaths in your mind, and His Enemy will send real Goliaths into your path.  Sometimes, God empowers us to overcome those Goliaths; sometimes, though, God uses our seeming defeat to demonstrate His redemptive power.  All we can do, all any Christian can do, is that to which God has called us.  The real results, the reconciliation to God and to our neighbors, that’s up to Him.  But in the end, God will not be mocked.  He may show patient restraint for a while; He may seem absent or uncaring to those who really desire a thunderous slaying of giants; but in the end He promises that He and all who serve Him will be vindicated and glorified in Him.  What matters is our motivation; what matters is our faith.  Do we trust Him to rescue us from the paws of those wild animals that turn on us?  Do we trust in Him enough to face those inimical giants in our lives, confident in our faith, that He will redeem us in the end?  The answer to that question, beloved brothers and sisters, is to be found only in your heart.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ashes to ashes and duck to duck . . .

     I know I am an unfamiliar face and voice to most of you here.  Truth be told, I did not know George too well.  I am still new to the parish.  I met him for the first time January 2, and he did not bother to talk about his cancer until sometime in February.  Tina asked me one morning if we had begun to plan this service, as he had decided to wait until the new rector arrived.  I see the nods of understanding.  George was very much a self-sufficient, non-complaining gentleman.  I say all that, thought, by way of introduction, because the loss is mine.  Sometimes, as clergy shepherd a family through the valley and shadows of death, there is a lot of work to be done.  Visiting with, praying with, anointing for healing, and sharing the Eucharist was really my only contribution to George’s sermon at the end of his life.  Those who attend Advent regularly understand that I often say our lives are the best sermons, the best testimonies that we can give.  No matter the wonderful words that I choose, no matter how many hours I spend in preparation for a sermon, my effort will always fall short of how my parishioners live their lives in view of others: family, friends, and strangers.  As we work our way through this, I will highlight George’s sermon more.  I know his sermon was God-honoring and hope-filled simply by the way Babs and the rest of the family have dealt with his death.  In fact, a few of you chatted with me yesterday about your impressions of George and your struggles with his death in light of a loving, redeeming God testified to by George.  As the Gospel lesson George chose explains, even those struggles are ok.

     Before we get to the real sermon part, though, we need to deal with an elephant in the room.  Actually, it is a duck.  I bring it up now as you will all see it when young George and the pall bearers process it out to the hearse waiting outside for its journey to the cemetery.  It is hidden beneath the pall, reminding us again that no matter what we were in life, we are all equal in God’s eyes.  What matters now is whether George chose to serve the Lord Christ.  I will tell the story now so that no one feels bad about snorting with laughter later. . .

     At my second visit to discuss this service, George was asking my thoughts about the life after death and the life after the life after death.  We both agreed that if we have to spend eternity in church, God is really going to have to work on our hearts after our deaths, get some really good music and musicians, and give us breaks to sneak off to the Wedding Feast every now and again.  You are laughing because you know George.  George hopes there is hunting and fishing in heaven.  He hopes there is golf.  He liked the idea of sitting around a fire in the hearth with an adult beverage just chatting.  As we got to the point of the discussion, George asked me if I thought it blasphemous or wrong that he be interred in a duck.  Now folks, this is not my first rodeo.  I have had a number of strange requests regarding weddings and funerals.  But I admit I was a bit taken aback.  Like you are now, I thought he meant a real flesh and blood duck.

     I can’t remember if Babs or one of the boys brought the duck into the room, but he sent someone to fetch it to show me what he meant.  It was a beautifully hand-carved wooden duck.  More amazing to me, it had been painted.  It had been painted so well that the feathers were almost iridescent.  As I looked at this duck from different angles, the feathers seemed to change colors.  Folks, I am not much of an artist.  I am as left-brained as they come.  But even with that handicap I could see that this was a beautiful piece of art.  Two masters had contributed to its construction.  “Well,” I mumbled, “it will look beautiful on the mantle.”  “Mantle,” snorted George, “I’m going to be buried in that duck.”  I could not believe he was going to put the piece of art in the ground, but George informed me that Babs was in not about to let him hang around on the mantle here until she passes.  Now, you are all laughing, but it ended up a guffawing moment.

     George asked if I was sure he was not offending God by being buried in this duck.  I like to think in retrospect that this was a Holy Spirit moment.  You all may have a different opinion.  I told George that I was pretty sure he was not offending God.  And just as George was relaxing a bit, I went on “but I am a little worried, George, that you might be confusing Jesus.”  George tensed up a bit and asked “confusing Jesus?”  I said “yes.  What if He thinks you were supposed to be a duck and raises you as one on the Last Day for all eternity?”  You think it was a Holy Spirit moment?  We are laughing, and that is a good thing.  George did not want this to be too mournful.  No sooner than it was out of my mouth than others in the family were laughing that such would be his fate if he mistakenly went to duck heaven.  Can you imagine all those ducks he killed trying to get even shooting at him?  It was at that moment, of course, that I knew for certain that George was not only prepared to meet his Maker.  He had wonderfully prepared his loved ones how to face his death and their own.  Yes, his “coffin” might a bit odd; but it is entirely George.

     George and I shared some similar interests, and we clearly shared a wonderful sense of humor.  From that time on, I found it just a pleasure to be invited into his life and to witness his confidence and humility.  In truth, he and I only had a couple of brief private conversations.  George was so well prepared to die, he was always asking “what do I do next?”  or “what happens now?”  He wanted this service quick, and he wanted this service simple.  If you wonder why there is no more pomp and circumstance, think of George.  Did he strike you in life as the guy who liked to make a fuss, as the guy who needed to be a diva, as the guy who wanted to be the center of attention.

     For this, his last testimony, George chose to share with all of us the beginning of the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel.  In some ways, the choice was inappropriate.  Jesus is speaking of His own imminent departure.  His apostles are about to be convinced that He has failed in His mission, that they were duped, that they failed Him, and any other number of shameful, fearful, or despaired thoughts.  And Jesus is teaching them that their despair, fear, and doubts will end when He returns again.  In another sense, though, George’s selection is certainly appropriate, for it teaches us a great deal about death in the life of a Christian and how we who witness such deaths should respond. 

     Just a few verses prior to this reading, we are reminded that Jesus, as fully human and fully divine, shares in our sadness and mourning.  Three times in the last three chapters, Jesus is described by our translators as “deeply troubled.”  I do not know whether we in modern America understand the depth of that trouble indicated by John.  The word that is translated as “deeply troubled” seems shallow in our ears when we consider the circumstances.  When Jesus stands before Lazarus’ tomb, when Jesus speaks of the Cross, and when Jesus comments on Judas’ betrayal, the author describes Him as tarasso.  I do not know about you, but “deeply troubled” does not seem to capture how I feel about betrayal, about how I would feel about my death, about how I feel about the death of a loved one or good friend.  How about you?  “Sucker punched in the gut?” “Feeling abandoned and despair?”  “Unable to stop crying?”  How would you describe your emotions in such events?  That is how Jesus is described when betrayed, when facing the Cross, and when facing the death of a loved one.

     No doubt all of us gathered here today feel some sense of tarasso.  We may not use that word as did the apostle John, but we are all here to remember the hole that has been created in our lives by this death.  That hole or chasm is, of course, biggest for Babs and the kids and the grandchildren, but all of us are here because we recognize something terrible has happened, something mournful has happened.  A few of us might even be here out of anger and uncertainty.  More than one person grabbed me yesterday at the visitation to express the unfairness of George’s passing.  He “deserved” to die an active death, not the pain and hurt that we presume he experienced with this death at the hands of cancer.  Some of us may even be angry that George misplaced his faith in a God who would not save him when he needed that God the most.  What kind of God lets relatively good men like George die the way He did, suffer the way He did, refuse to heal him the way He did?  That anger, that sense of betrayal, that feeling of having been sucker punched in the gut – now you understand the feelings of Jesus described by John.  From His example, we learn we are supposed to feel this way.  From His example we learn that it is ok to feel this way.  From His pain we learn that Christians are not supposed to be pollyannish, accepting every hurt or pain with a silly laugh or “God wanted me to go through this.”  There is no great lie we tell ourselves and others than “God wanted me to experience this.”  Our God is good.  Our God is loving.  Our God wants only good things for us.  Death was not part of His plan.  Jesus cries at the death of His friend just as we cry at the death of ours because this, this is not the way it was supposed to be. 

     The other part of George’s sermon that I want to highlight is this idea of rooms, the way we translate monai.  There is an idea out there that Jesus has a hardhat on, much like a foreman, and that He is constructing mansion after mansion for those of us who call Him Lord.  The word does not merely suggest  a physical place, like the grandest hotel ever created, nor does it express a better quality of place, like a subdivision of mansions.  What is the fear that Jesus is addressing in the hearts of His apostles?  Like us with respect to George, they fear their loss of fellowship with Him.  If Jesus dies, what happens to us?  What happens to His ministry?  What happens to the world?  This simple word refers only to a place of residence, a place of abiding, a place with our own names on it.  Jesus is teaching us and His apostles that there is a place in the Kingdom to come with our names on it.  For all the sadness, for all the anger, for all the tarasso we feel at George’s passing, we know, as did he, that there is a place for Him in his Father’s Kingdom.

     During our couple private talks, George barely complained and he barely worried.  When I touched upon my own worry that I might be absent when he passed, George, in one of those wonderful moments of insight, reassured me that it was ok.  He understood the words of Peter.  If Jesus had risen from the dead, he was going to be alright.  It didn’t matter if his pastor was around; it did not even matter if Jesus raised him for eternity as a duck.  His Lord had the only words of life, and there was nowhere else to turn this late in the game.

     All of that brings us to the real focus of George’s service.  George did not want this service to be about him.  He wanted this service to point the way to the Lord in whom he had placed his faith, the Lord in whom he trusted to comfort your mourning and to redeem even his death.  George wanted us all desperately to see that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God and the source of true life.  In this day and age of modern America, it might seem mean or too simply to make such an exclusive claim.  After all, the world wants us to believe that possessions matter most, that our reputations matter most, that our careers matter most, that any number of things that we cannot take with us when we die matter most.  A faith like George’s, where he affirmed that there was something unique, something unapproachable by other means, the Redemption offered by Jesus Christ, is rare.  And yet those are the last words he chose to leave you.  “Jesus said I am the Way, I am the Truth, and I am the Life.”  Jesus’ claim is not that He was a good teacher among many teaching a truth; Jesus’ claim was not that of a good life coach from among many offering a choice from among many; Jesus’ claim was not some silly idea of “living in the minds” of others or other ephemeral existence.  Jesus’ claim is that He is the Way to the Father, He is the way to all Truth, and that He is source of all Life.  And that we might know His words were true, God raised Him on that Easter morning some two thousand years ago, testifying to the disciples and to us of His ability to keep all His promises to us!  Nowhere else in history is such a ridiculous claim made.  Nowhere else in the collected wisdom of man is an idea considered.  Nowhere else has such hope been offered.

     Brothers and sisters, that is the testimony that George hoped you heard from him during his life and his passing.  No doubt some of you heard it more directly and more clearly than others, but that was as much a concern of his as was “what do I do next?”  Jesus was the source of his hope?  Jesus was the promise of his redemption?  And Jesus was the way in which he hoped to see all of us again, when all our tears, all our anger, all our tarasso had been wiped away, and we see with eyes what we see today by faith.