Monday, October 1, 2018

On country clubs and church . . .

     Our readings this week seemed hit or miss to me.  In the OT, we have the story of Esther.  Actually, we have part of the end of the book of Esther and part of the story that gives rise to the Jewish celebration of Purim.  Like Song of Songs a couple weeks ago, the book does not mention the name of God at all.  Yet, it is clear in the book that God is nudging history where it needs to go.  The book, of course, makes some modern preachers uncomfortable, as it ends with a Jewish uprising that results in more than 75,000 of their enemies dead.  They should probably be made more comfortable by the fact that the Jews, although entitled by edict of King Ahasuerus, take no spoils.  Reminiscent of the holy wars in Deuteronomy, the spoils of these skirmishes are left to God, reminding us that the Jews recognized Yahweh was at work in their deliverance and in their ability to destroy their enemies.  As you can tell, on the day after our big barbecue, I discerned neither would y’all be up for that involved a teaching, and I seriously questioned whether I was energetic enough to give it the care it deserves.
     The Gospel lesson is, unlike Esther, very familiar, or at least it should be.  Given some conversations with some clergy friends this week, I wonder whether we really inwardly digest Jesus’ warnings to those of us given cures?  Too many seem not care about those in their charge and certainly do not seem to worry a whit about millstones, even though Jesus seems rather emphatic in this passage.  Better still, most of us have sat through sermons where the preacher explained the hyperbole of the passage when it comes to plucking out eyes or cutting off feet or cutting off hands.  I wonder, though, if we really pay attention to Jesus’ warnings about Hell in this passage.  How bad must Hell really be if Jesus is willing to use these hyperboles?
     As you can tell, I ended up in James, sort of by default.  I was certain y’all did not need to be encouraged to rise up and kill your enemies by a sermon on Esther.  I was fairly confident that we knew the passage of Mark well enough, even if we do not always take the warnings seriously.  The Psalm would have required some significant unpacking that would have led us to the OT story or the Exodus and then to real life.  None of y’all wanted to sit through that, and I was pretty sure I did not want to stand through that!  My problem with the sermon on James was that it was not a typical attempt to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  It was more of an attempt to give Adventers the tools to evaluate themselves.  That means, of course, it’s not a great sermon for visitors.  Visitors often remark that they feel like they walked into the middle of a conversation between us and God.  In some ways they really that, but in other ways they do not feel a part of the conversation.  Today will, I think for them, tend toward the latter.
     Our Sunday morning Bible Study class, led by Larry Douglass recently spent a good bit of time on James.  If you have any particular question about the letter, feel free to ask them.  Better still, please join them on Sunday mornings as they continue their study of the Word of God—right now they are learning all about talking asses and Balaam!  Not to bore you with too many details about the book, but its authorship has been attributed to the brother of Jesus, James, also the first bishop of Jerusalem.  Modern scholarship likes to wrestle with those questions.  A couple commentaries I read this week asserted that the book was probably based on one of James’ last sermons and then edited after his martyrdom and disseminated to the churches in the Diaspora.  Certainly, it is an authoritative book.  More than half of the verses include imperative or command verbs.  You and I know these as “Clean up your room,“ “Eat your vegetables,” and “Pick up your dirty clothes.”  Such commands are given by one in authority and are expected to be obeyed.  As to their other claims, I can speak only as authoritatively as they!
     Modern scholarship tries hard to forge a contrast between Paul and James.  I think their efforts are a big waste of time and, quite frankly, doomed to end in error.  James does famously instructs us that “Faith without works is dead,” just as Paul reminds us that faith is what God credits as righteousness.  I cannot imagine that either man, though, would find fault in the tagline of the other.  They might disagree with one another’s emphasis, but I imagine both, having been well-versed in the torah, would be shocked to find modern Christians trying to place them at enmity with one another.  James certainly agrees that our faith in Christ causes God to impute His righteousness towards us, and its that imputation and indwelling of the Holy Spirit that causes us to do the good works that we do, not some misplaced effort at works righteousness.  Similarly, Paul always expects that the disciples’ faith will be evidenced by their love toward one another, by their care and concern of the needy, and by their willingness to lay down their lives for others.  Both are writing to and caring for communities in different places, both physically and spiritually, but I do not think they would be happy with the fact that some modern theologians try to champion one over the other, let alone against one another.
     What brought me, in the end, I think to this letter is the self-evaluation that is happening in some corners of the parish.  I’m not sure the reason, but I have had a lot of Adventers, maybe as many as two dozen, spend some time these last few weeks wondering if we have changed, if we have changed enough, if we are making a mistake, and whether I have given up on us.  As I listened to them and asked Adventers to vocalize better the things with which they are wrestling, it often comes back to the several year old self-discernment among you that you were a country-club.  If you are visiting today, one of the self-descriptions Adventers used during their search process was that they were a country club looking to get more focused on being a church.  To many clergy, such language was a put off.  To the bishop, and later to me, it was a description that captured some Adventers, though I still, even after nearly four years among them, have not learned what benefits one got from the “country club.”
     Part of the concern, of course, is the launch of the new feeding ministry and the associated information we have gleaned as a result of that launch.  Many of us thought hunger was not a big issue around us a few months ago.  We have distributed somewhere between 2000 and 2200 pounds of food over the last two months in our community with very, very, very little organization and promotion.  Heck, the ministry does not even have a name yet!  Unbeknownst to most around here, we have helped our own, we have helped our neighbors, we have helped those who serve us in this community, and we have clearly made an impact at one of the local schools.  Best of all?  Because of the financial support of Adventers, the funding for the ministry has come from what the Vestry might call “irregular sources” at a level which has meant the new ministry need not come out of operational budget.  Better even still?  The funding levels have meant we could give the food to those in need rather than charge them!  And still there is money for a couple more months.  When I arrived, I promised y’all in public and in private conversations that money follows ministry.  The glaring lack as an outside observer back then was that we had no ministry, no purpose.  We may or may not yet, God will certainly tell us, but there are worse appellations by which to be known than as “the church who tried to feed people.”
     Part of the concern is regarding our corporate life together has been the changeover.  Folks notice when other folks leave; folks notice when new folks show up.  Why the turnover?  What does it mean?  In some cases, Adventers have been absent because of health issues.  We do a bad job of sharing those with one another, and I will speak more to that in a few moments.  But, in some cases, people have left for other parishes or just drifted away.  Some have shared their reasons; others have left us wondering.  Being a good Episcopalian congregation, we are always worried about change – it is not for no reason we are called God’s Frozen Chosen!  So Adventers have wrestled with that issue, too.
     Part of the problem, I think, is that y’all know me better, and I know you better.  I know the first year I was intentional in my efforts not to change anything, unless it was clearly coming from the parish.  Part of that was so I could see simply how Advent really worked.  Who did what around here?  What voices were respected?  What whispers were ignored?  Add to that the fact I am rather introverted, and we needed time to get to know one another better.  Now, when I speak about something, I can be a little more blunt.  Even if I choose not to say anything, y’all have become better readers of my tone or body language.  Silent communication is probably flowing much better between us now.  So also, I hope, is trust.  Some among us thought I might view Advent as a stepping stone parish or deep pocket solution or some other benefit accruing spot as befitting a great country club.  I think our time among you, and the way that we live, plus a gazillion conversations, have helped people understand me better and why I came, why I stay, why I continue to hope and pray for us as a parish, and even why sometimes I wish I had the power of the lightning bolt to speed things along!
     I also recognize that I am probably not the one to lead Advent into its next historical moment.  Much of my calling has been to reawaken in you that faith you had, that spiritual DNA that lay dormant here for some years.  Clearly, I am an evangelical in the classic sense of the word.  How do we spread the kingdom of God best in our community?  How do we get others who are not yet members of this body to join us in the serving of and glorifying of God in our community?  At some point, given my focus, there will need to refocus on the needs of the congregation.  We don’t focus much on that now because of our collective age.  Ideally, as James points out today, a healthy congregation has an eye on the world around it and an eye on itself.  For too long our eyes were focused on us.  It took a particular impassioned leader to pry our eyes away from our country club bellies and look to the world.  I recognize and understand, though, we need to keep an eye on ourselves, just not necessarily in the ways that we did.
     Are we at Advent more of a country club or more of a church today?  It’s a question with which we should all be wrestling in prayer and in discernment with the Holy Spirit.  When folks have come in to ask me that question, or close variations, I make a few mad by putting the question back to them.  What do you think?  James gives us a couple evidences to which we should look.
     Are any among you suffering?  One of the very few changes I made was the introduction of the Healing Service on Sunday’s.  Yes, y’all were patient and willing to try it if it might get important people in the RC or Anglican church here.  For those who have come in more recent times, one of my “selling points” to the congregation was that Justyn and Francis were adamant that churches needed to reclaim their position as healing communities.  Far too few churches pray for and anoint with oil the sick and suffering.  Of those that do, most make it a weekday service rather bringing it front and center as a main part of their corporate worship.  I put it front and center, in consultation with the folks on Liturgy and Worship, but only four times a year.  Yet, even in those limited numbers, how many folks have experienced a miraculous healing?  I am often amazed at what constitutes a miracle in the eyes of another Christian.  I long for and look for those incredibly flashy evidences.  God, though, especially at Advent, seems to rejoice in quiet curveballs.  Time and time and time again, Adventers share how God responded to my and their prayer, not as I hoped He would or necessarily prayed that He would, but as what was best for them.  More amazingly, He has done these “mundane” works in such a way that even Bartimaeus could see His sovereign hand amongst us.
     Of course, how many people hate that service?  How many Adventers, in particular, hate the time spent in prayer for another?  How often do we wish that service would go faster, and so we skip that service?  Or, to flip the coin over, how many of us refuse to seek healing?  How many of us think to keep our mouths shut, our needs to ourselves, rather than sharing with the Body we call Advent of our need?  Time and time again after the Healing service, Adventers come to me asking me to pray and anoint them privately because they do not want other Adventers that they are struggling.  I have had Adventers with cancer, with vision problems, with musculature problems, with relationship problems intentionally withhold such need simply to keep up appearances.  When we who are in need refuse to share that need, we are being selfish and stunting the growth of others among us.  There are Adventers with the gift of prayer, there are Adventers with the gift of loving service among us.  When we keep our suffering to ourselves, we deprive them of their opportunity to serve God and grow in their understanding of how He uses them to His glory!  Does that sound like we’ve made the complete turn?
     Confession.  Hoo boy.  That was an issue that came up this week in a big way.  It’s always fun as a priest to get to tell someone they must repent.  Everyone, Adventers especially, respond so well to that instruction.  By the way, if you are visiting today, you might have figured out that I, and many of them, received a double share of sarcasm.  We like to claim it was from the Holy Spirit, but it is, admittedly, hard to be sure.
     Apart from the corporate confession each time we celebrate the Eucharist, how many of us are willing to confess to one another when we sin against them; even more rarely, how many of us are willing to listen to confession?  We give great lip service to the priesthood of all believers in the Episcopal Church, don’t we?  We claim to want to value the ministry of everyone in the church.  But do we?  More importantly, do we at Advent?  Be honest with yourself, how well do you do seeking out those you have wronged at Advent?  Be more honest with yourself, how well do you do granting forgiveness, reminding yourself that you forgive because He first forgave you?  I know.  That was another cheap shot.  We are exhausted from the barbecue.  We are tired.  And the Holy Spirit nearly ripped our underwear on that spiritual wedgie.  James this morning reminds us of the central nature of confession in the Christian community.  When we wrong each other, we should be seeking each other out to apologized.  Just as significantly, when someone seeks us out to apologize, we are called by God to forgive them in His name.  It’s both an incredible privilege and a weighty responsibility, isn’t it?  We like to judge the apology; we like more to judge the effect of the sin against us.  We are slow to forgive.  Yet James reminds us that such behavior is central to the well-being of the Christian community.  So, I ask again, does it sound like we have made that pivot from a country club to a church?
     It’s at this point that James brings up the illustration of Elijah.  My guess is that some of you wrestled with me a bit over whether you need the Rite of Confession or should be granting forgiveness.  That’s ok.  It does not require a spiritual superhero to make that possible.  I often think of Elijah as the “Whining Prophet.”  I know, Elijah has some great miracles attached to his name.  Elijah raises the widow’s son from the dead.  Elijah prays the prayer that closes the heavens with respect to rain for more than three years.  Elijah is the prophet who does battle with all the prophets of Ba’al, mocking the prophets and their idol during the battle.  Elijah is the prophet who is carried up to heaven in the whirlwind.  Elijah, along with Moses, is present during the Transfiguration of our Lord.  Jesus speaks with him and Moses about His upcoming death and Resurrection—talk about being on the inside of salvation history.   I could name more deeds of power and honorifics, but to do so, I think, separates him from us.  James does not want that.  James wants us to understand that God chose to work through Elijah, just as He desires to work through you and through me.  Our response, not our personalities, is what matters to God.  He can mold us, shape us, and disciple us, but only if we agree to be used by Him, to think of and treat Him truly as Lord.  What makes Elijah special is nothing inherent in him, just as there is nothing inherently special in each of us!  What makes us special, what distinguishes us is that God has chosen us and to work through us!
     What else distinguishes the people of God from other secular gatherings?  Discipleship.  How well are you participating in discipleship opportunities?  By that, I mean, what kind of effort are you putting into knowing the mind and heart of God?  How well are you attuning yourself to His desire for you and the world around you?  That’s the theological way of asking whether we are studying God’s word in Scriptures well enough.  That’s the theological way of asking whether we are attuning ourselves to God through prayer, either as a personal devotion or corporate exercise such as Lectio Divina.  That’s the theological way of asking whether the worship of God is of primary importance in our lives, as we were all reminded this summer during our study of the shema.  That’s the theological way of asking if we are participating in small groups that address the needs in our lives, be they the challenges of parenting adult children or wrestling with questions about our faith.  That’s the theological way of asking what kind of stewards are we with our time, talents, and treasures.
     I know.  We’re tired.  These are unfair questions the day after that fantastic but tiring event of yesterday.  It was cruel for the lectionary editors to select this reading for this day however many years ago.  Do notice, though, I’m not giving you your answers.  I am asking you to evaluate your answers to those questions in full conversation, full dialogue, with God.  Is He the most important person in our lives?  Do we truly appreciate what He has done for us in the life and work and death and Resurrection of His Son?  Do we really believe ourselves capable of grasping His promises, however tenuously, here while on earth?  Do we really think He can make of us other Elijah’s, other Deborah’s, other Hannah’s, other Joseph’s, other Peter’s, other Mary’s, or other James’?  Or do we think we are impossible clay for Him to mold?
      James brings up one more important task of the disciple, and I have mentioned it earlier in the “drift away” comments.  I promised I would get back to it.  Do not raise your hands, but who has drifted away from the Body of Christ during your time at Advent?  I’m not talking about people who left Advent for Good Shepherd or St. George’s or even other denominations.  Who do you know that has drifted away from the Body of Christ?  Put differently, how do you know those other folks just left Advent because they wanted better preaching, more youth opportunities, less fighting, or whatever excuses?  Somebody asked them where they were.  Too often, brothers and sisters, folks drift away.  They sleep in on a rainy cloudy Sunday because they are tired.  The babies get younger and play soccer or whatever.  Golf or NFL football replaces God as the most important thing in their lives.  They don’t need the Body to worship God.
     Discipling is like training for a sport.  It’s easy to slip back into old habits.  The world competes for our time, and we forget who created time.  We think we are lovingly serving our children by dragging them from club to club or athletic contest to athletic contest, when, in reality, we are cutting them off from knowing the One person in the universe who truly, utterly, and unconditionally loved them.  Then we are shocked, as they get older, that He’s just not that important in their lives.  It works for us, but they are fine without Him.  We, more often than not, say nothing.  You know, Barbara Jones and I spent Thursday morning at a Commission on Aging Event this week.  They pounded home the idea that loneliness has the same physical effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  Tons of you are in health care, so you can speak better to the physical consequences than I ever could.  It impacts our heart and lungs, it impacts our diet and weight, and it impacts our mental health.  If only there were an antidote!  Wait, there is!
     We moan and complain and whine and whimper about the modern age.  Nobody has time for sitting on the porch sipping tea in a rocking chair watching the world pass by.  No we don’t know our neighbors, we exchange information with our friends and family with 140 character limit texts, and we’d rather stare at our phones than interact with other, live human beings.
     This body, this gathering of brothers and sisters ought to be the antidote to loneliness and drift away.  I wish you had an opportunity to hear folks from my side of the conversations.  This might shock you all, but most folks don’t come because I’m eye candy or a fantastic preacher.  They are not drawn to Advent because of the loving care with which we conduct liturgy or the emphasis we place on programs.  They come because one of you invited, or rather re-invited them.  I get the sheepish apologies.  You know, Father, I had tickets for a Titans game and then my grandson had a soccer match and then my other granddaughter had a gymnastics competition and before I knew it, I’d been gone x number of weeks or months.  Then, so-and-so called me.  Or, I ran into so-and-so at this club or this restaurant or whatever.  They reminded me they missed me, and they reminded me I missed them.
     Let that sink in for a second.  They weren’t re-drawn into the Body because of the fancy “church” things.  They were drawn back in because they were missed or because they missed.  A few are here this morning.  Ask them why they left for a bit.  Ask them what brought them back.  Of course, I used the imaginary sign for church things.  That was intentional, James clearly understands the importance of fellowship in the life of the disciple.  No doubt when you read this passage, or rather listened to Rosemary read it to us this morning, you had in mind those who left the Christian faith for other religions.  Read James again.  If anyone wanders from the truth and is brought back by another.  What more important truth is there than the worship and adoration of God for the saving work He has done for us in Christ Jesus?!
     And here’s the cool part.  James, the brother of Jesus.  The guy who probably gave him noogies as a brother and thinks that those of us whose brothers and sisters think they are god in our lives get off easy!  James reminds us that they simply act of bringing another back into the fold will cover a multitude of sins.  I know, we want to put that work on the shoulders of our professional Christians.  Why don’t we want the benefits that James says comes from simply reaching out to those not here?  Why are we willing to let them continue their drift after a few weeks?  A few months?  A few years?  In some ways, I wish this would have been last week’s readings.  How much more meaningful would some of those conversations have been yesterday, had we been re-inviting those who have drifted away and not found their way to another gathering of the Body of Christ?
     All of this, of course, allows us to answer that question I posed at the beginning.  James’ letter is addressed to groups of God’s people gathered throughout the Diaspora.  More than that, though, James’ letter allows us even to evaluate ourselves in light of God’s revealed purposes for us.  How are we doing attuning ourselves to our Father in heaven?  How would He do our performance evaluations as His chosen ambassadors?  Hopefully, you and I can point to some things we do well and things upon which we need to work.  Similarly, when it comes to the corporate, that is the body called Advent’s, work to which He calls us, how are we doing.  No doubt each of us can think of things we do well and things we do poorly, indeed.
     The great news, the Gospel news, is that all He requires is that we repent of our sins and ask of Him the grace and power to try and succeed the next time, be we the ones who ignored the nudges of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the voices of those around us crying for help, those who fought hard to be self-sufficient and not allow our brothers and sisters to exercise their ministerial gifts, those who relate much better to a whining Elijah or a human things focused Peter, a body which came to self-identify as a country club, or even the ones who drifted away.  There is, quite frankly, no limit to what He can accomplish with those with willing and contrite hearts.

In His Peace,

Thursday, September 27, 2018

An introduction to the Psalter and an invitation to the blessed life in God!

     I suppose I landed on the Psalm this week by way of encouragement from the Monday morning Bible Study group.  At different times over the last couple weeks, I have been reminded that I do not do enough commercials for that group.  So, in the interest of promotion, we have a group on Monday morning that is working its way through the Psalter.  We talk of poetry and the human condition and of David and Jesus and how the Psalter still sings to us today.  Absolutely no familiarity with the Psalter is required.  All that is required is a genuine hunger and thirst for God, and perhaps a bit of artistic bent does not hurt!  And, if you want to know more about that study, or even about this psalm in particular after today, I encourage you to ask those who come!
     A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I had a professor who nagged us students that we ignored the psalms to the detriment of our congregations and to our own spiritual life.  He was a professor of the Old Testament, so it makes sense that he loved the Psalter.  He also was not Episcopalian or Anglican, but he appreciated the fact that the Psalms figured prominently in our Eucharists and Daily Offices.  His love of the Psalms was far more than academic familiarity.  We speak often about the psalms being written for those who process or see the world differently.  If you are very much a cause and effect, actions have consequences, just give me the facts kind of individual, linear processor, the psalms may well drive you nuts.  By contrast, if you find yourself enraptured by poetry, enjoying a painting, fed in ways by great music that you cannot explain to your rationalistic friends, then the psalms may have been inspired by God for you!
     The Psalms are, in a real sense, a retelling of the Old Testament.  Their relationship to the Old Testament is made obvious by their division that is reminiscent of the Pentateuch, the first five books attributed to Moses.  Their ties to the prophets and historians of the Old Testament are made even clearer by specific word choices.  In some case, the psalmist chooses a word that is well developed over the breadth of the Old Testament.  Hesed comes to mind, God’s covenant love of His people; as does asre, blessed, which we will pick up in a moment.  Sometimes a location or word is mentioned which is meant to point us to a much bigger story.  If we are unfamiliar with the bigger story, we might miss the significance of the Psalm or at least the deeper meaning intended by a word or phrase choice.
     Psalm 1 is unique not just because of its focus on asre, blessed, but also because of its structural place in the Psalter.  Were we to go back in time, the psalm that you and I read today is not Psalm 1.  It was the introduction to the entire Psalter.  It stood apart from the Psalter, in certain respects, reminding you and me why we should be engaging in the study of this poetry.  If you want to consider this a bit more, re-read Acts 13:33.  A quote is taken from the first psalm, but you and I know that reference to be Psalm 2:7, but now I’m just reminding the Bible study group of layers they have forgotten many psalms ago!
     Psalm 1 is known both as a wisdom psalm and as a torah psalm.  In the first case, the psalm today follows the two path choice of life.  One may choose to follow God, and receive the promised gift of blessedness; or one may choose to follow someone or something other than God, and receive the curse of not being blessed.  In the second case, the Psalm makes it clear that torah is what leads to God.  Torah is a word that does not translate readily to English, as I have probably beaten over a dead horse.  I wish the word was just adopted by the English language so we could get all the nuances implied by the terms.  Doesn’t the word mean law?  Yes, it does.  But it also means instruction and teaching and has a liberating and educating quality to it which the English word “law” lacks.  In fact, many of us tend to view laws as limiting.  Don’t speed.  Don’t cheat on your taxes.  No loud music after 10pm.  Torah has that understanding of fulfilment, of what the biblical authors call perfect freedom.  If one wants truly to be in full communion with a righteous, holy, just, loving, and all the great adjectives we know about God, one must know the torah.  This is not a cursory understanding.  In Episcopal/Anglican circles, we would say that we need to read, learn, and inwardly digest the torah to understand better and to please God more.
     The psalm also serves as an exhortation.  As we read the psalms, the two choices of life, and their consequences, are clearly and emphatically contrasted.  While the first few verses deal with what we might charitably call temporal or earthly consequences, the psalm ends with an eschatological look at the destiny of those who fear God and those who believe themselves not to need God.  The latter, of course, will be referred to as foolish and evil throughout the Psalter.  They will be encouraged to turn back to, you and I would say repent, God.  The faithful or righteous, meaning those who try to live by God’s instruction and who repent when they fall away, are cautioned to avoid the snares of the unrighteous.  Our verbs this morning show a life that is increasingly comfortable living a life that is at odds with God.  They also refer us back to the book of Deuteronomy, verses 6:7 and 11:19 in particular, reminding us in a not-so-subtle way that we should be immersing ourselves in the study and meditation, and contemplation of God and His torah!  But they also point us to the descriptive nouns of verse 1.  The Hebrew word translated as wicked, resacim, is a simple courtroom description.  In a particular instance or set of circumstance, this person did something wrong.  The word translated sinners, by contrast, referred to those people whose inclination was to do wrong far more often than not.  Their lives were not shaped by an isolated evil event or choice in their lives; rather they tended to live their life in rebellion against God and His instruction.  By further contrast stand the mockers, those who openly and unabashedly, well, mocked people for following God and His commands, who unabashedly tried to take advantage of others who obeyed God, believing that there was no God to judge them!  Are you getting a better flavor of the richness and depth contained in this, just the introduction to the Psalms?
      I know.  Uh oh, Brian quoted verses again.  Those who have been around me now for four years understand I am not big about doing that in sermons.  I do in Bible Study, but I try to avoid citations like that in sermons.  Sermons are meant to encourage and prod and comfort and afflict, not convict you of your ignorance or prove to you that I study the Scriptures.  The Psalter, though, like any great poetry, can articulate in a few words what writers of prose can say in paragraphs.  This is a perfect example.  Unless you are suffering from severe insomnia, how many of you have actually studied the book of Deuteronomy to understand the reference of verse 2?  See, no hands.  Part of the problem with the richness of the Psalms is that it points us to other places in Scripture, places and people we may not know, if we are not immersing ourselves in God’s torah.  See the cycle?   As we read and inwardly digest the Psalms, we are forced to study more of Scripture in order to understand better what is really being said, which means we are steeped more and more in God’s torah, which means we are steeped more and more in His love, hesed, which means we become holier and more righteous, dare I say more sanctified, as we live out what we have internalized!
     What should we have internalized?  Well, one of the good teachings of the Psalter is the fact that so many are attributed to David.  I know some folks around here have struggled with the idea that David was a man after God’s own heart.  As I have preached on occasion this summer, David did some truly horrible things.  He kills a husband to hide adultery.  He compels a faithful subject to sleep with him, betraying her husband.  He even tells God to punish the people rather than him and his family.  But, the author, or attributed author of many of these Psalms, is merely wicked.  When confronted with his sin, David always repents.  And though David wishes to avoid the consequences of some of his sins, he recognizes in the psalms that God’s judgment and discipline are not only right, but for his own good.  So, in a way, the Psalter sets an example for how you and I should live.  Those who study the Psalms learn what God demands and expects and instructs, but we also learn God’s willingness to forgive and to discipline.
     We are also taught, through the Psalter, that our outward condition in no way reflects our relationship with God.  Some translations take asre and conflate it to happiness.  Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.  Let me ask y’all a question this morning.  Who here is happy all the time not walking in the counsel of the wicked?  Good, those hands should stay down.  We are not happy all the time.  Life bearing a cross for the glory of God is hard, demanding work.  Do not get me wrong, such work is wonderful and meaningful beyond measure, but it is not always happy or joyful work.  God uses suffering servants, in imitation of His Suffering Servant, to reach His flock, His people.  Though the psalmists will at times wrestle with God, argue with God, complain bitterly at God, in the end the psalmists are always moved to recognize that God will protect, will shelter, and will even redeem those terrible circumstance of life.  Unlike us, of course, the psalmist has no understanding of the Cross and Resurrection, but one can certainly see their place as we look back in history through the focusing lens of our Savior Jesus Christ!  And it is that Cross and Empty Tomb which, in the end, gives us hope and comfort and surety and confidence!
     Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the eschatological judgment should give us all serious hope.  The psalmist begins this introduction with the claim that those who choose God and His ways are blessed.  Those of us who live in what the kids nowadays call IRL (in Real Life) are left with the same question as the mockers.  How can we or anyone claim to be blessed, if all life simply ends in death?  Put a bit differently, how many of you here today feel like God is really in control or paying attention all the time?  Cynics among us might like to argue that the dead are blessed only in the sense that they no longer suffer the vagaries of human existence.  Certainly the mockers believe there are no consequences for their rebellious decisions.  He who dies with the most toys wins!  Thankfully, and mercifully, as I have already mentioned, you and I get to read these psalms through the focus of the Cross and Empty Tomb.  We know that Christ pays the penalty for our wicked acts and makes it possible for us to receive the full measure of God’s forgiveness.  More amazingly, while the psalmist wonders how God can be honored if he or she goes down into the dust, you and I are reminded of the redeeming power of God.  Jesus is but the first fruits of those raised from the dead.  All who claim Him Lord, all who truly in their hearts seek to live as He taught are promised a share in that eternal blessedness proclaimed in this introduction.  And so, the question of death that so plagues the psalmist is no longer the big hurdle to you and to me.  We know God’s power to redeem even death!  And we know His promise to redeem all His people.  And so, while we whose hope is grounded in the death and resurrection of Christ may be said to experience a profound peace or comfort or however we want to describe our life on this side of the grave in the midst of its vagaries, are pointed to a future, an eternal future, where we experience all the blessings first mentioned by the psalmists!  In a real way, the Psalter captures the life of God’s people and even those who reject or even mock Him.  Life, as the psalmists so well know, is messy and full of grey areas.  But the consideration and study of God’s Word, both in Scripture and in the work and person of Jesus Christ, reminds us that this shadowy existence is not all that there is, that our Lord calls us to something far more permanent and far more glorious!

In Christ’s Peace,

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Focusing on divine things, in this case Marie, rather than human things . . .

     I learned later that she called herself Marie.  Before I get to Marie and a bit of her story, such as I know it, I should probably set the scene.  As most of you know, we were in Daytona Beach visiting Karen’s sister and her family.  The retirement party for Karen’s mom had been re-scheduled last year because of Irma.  And yes, Florence was off the coast barreling toward the Carolina coast.  Karen’s parents had evacuated when the island was still under a mandatory evacuation.  It was lifted after they got to their daughter’s house, but they needed to be at the retirement party Thursday night, too, so . . . Karen’s parents had brought their cats because of the potential storm surge.  So there we were.  1 fish, 2 birds, three cats, nine grandchildren, and six “adults.”  The cousins were squealing because they were finally playing together.  That noise, of course, helped the animals relax.  And the adults were paying close attention to Florence.
     The morning after the models changed and began to show Florence making a southwesterly move, perhaps a second landfall as far south as Savanah, I went out to get gas.  You all know me.  I never win the lottery or any good things.  There was an outlier path on the “spaghetti models” that showed Florence stalling just south of the Outer Banks, curving south, and coming ashore somewhere between Savanah and Jacksonville on the Georgia Coast.  I don’t win good lotteries, but I knew which model would prove the most accurate if I were not prepared.  So, to save the folks on the Georgia coast, I went out that morning to fill up my tank.  I figured if the storm headed our way, we’d be able to take off quick.
     So, as I was filling up the car, I started getting the nudge.  Y’all know me well now.  I have the discernment of a slug.  I am often grateful that Jesus was a carpenter and thinks to crack boards over my thick head from time to time to get through to me.  But this was a nudge that I have become better a recognizing.  Somewhat near the entrance to the handimart, though off to the side, was a woman who appeared homeless.  I was too far away to read her sign, but it was a sight that is all too familiar here in Nashville.  Anyway, the wrestling match began with the nudge.  It was hot and humid, as Florida is during the summer.  It was a long walk to go speak to the woman.  But, where she was was not conducive for driving over.  This was going to be a pain.  Couldn’t someone else do it?  I needed to get back to the noisy ark where we were all staying.
     Recognizing the nudge and the futility of arguing, I drove over.  After a couple dodges of various obstacles, I pulled up beside her.  Can I help you?  She just wanted money, but I told her I had no cash on me.  Plus, y’all know I’m not big on giving cash.  I try to meet the need rather than just give cash.  The only other thing she needed would be a real pain for me.  I asked what it was.  She wanted a bacon, egg, and cheese croissant and a cold, sweet iced-tea from the Dunkin Donuts there.  She apologized for being picky in her mind by showing me her lack of teeth which made chewing harder things nigh impossible.  She also showed me her hands.  They were dirty.  She did not like to pull her food apart to eat because, well, she could not wash her hands.  I told her I’d be back in a few.  Before I moved the car, she asked if she could ask a question.  I told her she could ask two, but the humor was lost on her.  Why did you do this?  I asked what she meant.  She explained that she stood a bit out of the way to keep the coins from hurting so much.  People would fling coins at her as they drove out.  When you’re too close, they hurt.  So, if I stand over here, they don’t hurt so bad, plus, I can hear them when they hit the concrete when they miss.  I told her I was not sure yet.  God intended something here.  Maybe it was just to feed her?  Maybe it was a lesson for me?  Maybe it was for someone else?  I’d just have to see.  She asked if I was a preacher man, and I told her I was.  And she laughed that I kinda had to do stuff like that, didn’t I.  I laughed with her and agreed.  I got my car out of the maze and back into the real part of the parking lot.
     I went into the Dunkin Donuts and ordered her croissant and extra-large sweet iced tea.  As I was waiting on them to finish her meal, I had the thought or nudge to get her some water.  I headed back over to the handimart, where Dasani was on sale BOGO, and got her two bottles of water.  As I was checking out, the clerk said “That’s for Marie, isn’t?”  I begged her pardon.  I saw you over there talking to her.  You know she’s there every day until she leaves, waiting on suckers like you to help her out.  Now that I knew her name, I asked the clerk about Marie’s story.  She shrugged and said she rightly did not know.  The guy standing to my right perked up and asked what we were talking about.  The clerk told him I was Marie’s newest sucker.  The guy proceeded to rant for 30-45 seconds how the damn tourists keep folks like her around.  In many ways, their attitude toward her was like that of people toward stray animals.  The locals all know she’s lazy.  There’s jobs to be had if anyone wants one.  She just stands out there asking for handouts.  The people in line with me nodded their heads and murmured their own thoughts on his statement.
     I took my opening and asked how he or they knew she was lazy, making eye contact with those who had the most conviction about Marie’s supposed laziness.  Another guy behind me answered that there were tons of jobs.  The only reason anyone doesn’t work is cause they don’t want to.  Again, more nodding and murmuring.  So I opined.  I shared that in all the years I had worked with the homeless, I had met very few lazy folks.  Many were dogged by mental illness.  Many were dealing with addiction.  Few were what I considered lazy.  Even those who could do no other jobs took pride in their work of begging.  I’d even met a few that declared and paid their taxes.  Heck, how lazy could Marie really be if she was standing there all day in this heat and humidity asking for help?  Another voice behind me asked if I was a preacher man.  I said that I was.  Another voice said that God helps those who helps themselves.  That statement brought lots of agreement.  You got the right of that!  Amen!  He sure do!  I asked if He really said that.  At first, they were all certain He did.  When I pressed for book and verse, though, no one seemed able to think of it.  I told them I was fairly certain it was either a Ben Franklin saying or an Algernon Sydney saying.
     I know.  Y’all are wondering how I know that stupid bit of trivia and still forget names so easily.  Where did I go to school?  Hampden-Sydney.  Does that last name sound familiar now?  We were steeped in a great deal of the history, philosophy, and writings of our Founding Fathers.  The mission of the college is, after all, to create Good Men and Good Citizens.  There’s a bit of a fight among historians as to who said it first, but it’s not something that is in Scripture or even expresses the mind and character of God.  But that’s a different sermon.
     They were certain it was biblical.  I told them I just needed chapter and verse.  While some were looking, one guy asked what Bible I used.  I asked why that mattered.  He said that some folks refused to use the King James version nowadays.  I told the group I have several different translations, plus the original Greek texts upon which their favorite translations were based.  I encouraged him to check his KJV online and give me the verse.  One by one, those who were googling or checking their favorite Bible App wondered if it was broken.  Amazingly to them, not so much to me, it did not appear in any of their Bibles.  One guy was incredulous and figured there was a problem with the Bible on his phone—he knew it was in print at home!
     I told him I was willing to bet he could not find that verse in his Bible at home.  The others, of course, laughed because they assumed that I could quote every verse in the Bible.  After all, I was preaching to them that midweek morning, so I clearly took the Bible seriously—I was not the typical hired hand.
     I thanked them for the intended compliment and told them they sounded to me like they took tried to take their faith seriously.  Everyone nodded assent and murmured their agreement.  So I took a chance.  I asked them if they’d ever thought about that pithy statement they were so sure existed in Scripture.  I got the predictable confused looks and statements, so I pressed ahead.  Whom does God like to help in Scripture?  Several answered widows and orphans, and a couple loudly answered His people.  I asked if any of them had ever heard their pastors about God helping those on the margins of society.  All of them nodded.  We talked a few seconds about the life of orphans and widows in the ANE.  In response to a comment from one of the His people answerers, I had to get them to see that His people are always the faithful remnant.  Except maybe when Solomon first ascended the throne, those doing God’s will in the world around them were really small in number.
     I asked if any went to churches that used the lectionary.  I ended up having to explain the lectionary, but a couple folks did.  I told them that if they went to a church using the lectionary, they would read the confession by Peter in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus is the Messiah.  Those that disagreed with the use of a lectionary thought it was a good reading.  I asked how Peter responds to Jesus’ instruction about suffering and death and the Resurrection, and the whole handimart congregation knew the “Get behind me Satan!” rebuke.  So I asked what followed.  To their credit, there were a couple men and women who knew the rest of today’s reading, even though they did not go to lectionary churches.  But it provided the local flavor to enter into a serious discussion about “divine things.”
     What does it mean to lose one’s life for the sake of the Gospel?  What does it mean to be ashamed of Jesus’ teaching?  Does Jesus really expect us to hold others, particularly those down on their luck like Marie, to the standard of “God helps those who help themselves.”?  In fact, how does God often help folks on the margins?  That’s right!  Through the Church, His other sons and other daughters—put more directly, through you and me!  You all, of course, know the answers to those questions.  Some of us have been struggling with those questions.  There are some of us who are worried about this immigrant and refugee focus that other members seem to have.  There are some of us who are uncomfortable with hungry folks coming by church to get food.  Me being the jerk pastor/good pastor (take your pick) that I am, ask you to wrestle with those questions.  Is it possible that we are mis-discerning a corporate ministry?  Absolutely.  Do I think God is happier with us mis-discerning by feeding or teaching or ministering to those on the margins of our society than He is with those who refuse to help lazy beggars?  Yes!  One group is expressing a circumcised heart; the other is still hard-hearted.  My guess is that we will figure out His will for us in this community rather quickly, so long as those hearts seek Him.  Time, and the Holy Spirit, will tell.
     But what of those of us who like to treat the other as other?  How are we honoring and glorifying God?  It’s easy to see us dishonoring God when we chuck coins at a homeless person, when we disparage their work ethic when we really do not know them, when we think ourselves able to sit in judgment about another person made in the similar image of God.  We claim to serve a God who made all things.  How quickly are we, though, to think there is a limit to our resources?  Our time?  Our energy?  Our compassion?  And when we live, as a body or as individuals, who feels limited, what is our testimony about the God we serve?
     Much like I suspect many of us today, judging by the holy silence, those questions resonated in that handimart.  Those folks weren’t evil, at least in the sense that we like to think.  They were normal, hard-working American Protestants.  They had simply forgotten the distinction between divine things and human things.  They had forgotten that our Lord Christ died on that Cross so that all, they and we and Marie and others, could come within the reach of God’s saving embrace.  You might say, like some of us, they had forgotten the basics and needed a refresher course.  Clearly, tourists were preaching the message.  They simply had ears and could not hear.  Thankfully, and mercifully, God used an itinerant preacher, a lectionary, and a homeless woman named Marie, not accidentally I think, to rebirth understanding of His will in all our lives.
     Our conversation ran its natural course.  Some were worried they had really screwed up in their attitudes.   I reminded them that all God demands is repentance and an effort to try and do better—that is one of the blessings of the Gospel, after all. A couple wanted to speak with their pastors and try and figure out if what I was saying was really true.  I get it.  They did not know me and wanted to talk to a pastor they trusted.  My friend who thinks Jesus spoke in King James English was still arguing with his stupid phone and with me that the “God helps those who helps themselves” statement had to be in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes or one of those books we don’t read too much.  I figured I had food ready and cold by now, and I worried that Marie figured I had set her up by promising food and not delivering—probably worse than flinging coins at her.  So I went back to DD to get her food and headed out.
     I made my way back over to Marie.  I handed her the croissant and gigantic ice tea and the bag with water.  She squealed in pleasure at the sugar in the Dunkin Donuts bag and at the extra water.  I told her it was BOGO.  If she wanted to use the water to wash, wash.  If she wanted to save it to drink, save it to drink.  It was hers to do with as she pleased.  She thanked me and asked if they were really busy in there.  I laughed and told her I was not sure—I had no standard of comparison.  She chewed that over a second and then commented that she noticed people going in the handimart, but nobody really coming out.  I confessed it was my fault, but a bit of the Holy Spirit’s, too, I thought.  She asked why.
     I told her that I had been warned off against helping her in the beginning.  She nodded that did not surprise her.  I told her it was then I figured out why I was helping her.  She asked what I meant by that.  I shared that I had had the opportunity to refocus a number of Christians on the things of God, like her.  She snorted at the idea that she was a thing of God.  I smiled and agreed.  She was not a thing of God, but possibly a daughter.  She snorted again.  And the light-heartedness left my voice and face.  I reminded her again that God loved her dearly, that He had created her in His image.  I was sorry for what she had suffered in this life.  I wished I could do more than get her a croissant and couple cold drinks.  But I had helped her because I felt His nudge or push as I was pumping gas.  I was pretty sure, I told her, that God was doing several things with that nudge.  He was giving me an opportunity to speak to my congregation about this week’s Gospel reading in a powerful way, were I obedient.  He was giving me an opportunity to do some serious preaching to a group of people claiming to be Christian but blind to suffering in their midst.  And He was reminding her that He loved her and knew her suffering in ways none of us around here ever would.  And that was just for starters.  Who knew what else He was about this hot, muggy morning!
     You really believe all that?  I told her I did.  She dearly hoped I was right.  I told her I knew God loved her dearly and I hoped she never forgot it.  I know it’s tough when folks fling words that hurt way more than coins, especially those who claim to be Christians, I understood that, but I knew He understood it even better than I ever could.
     There was a holy silence for some time.  It was probably 30-40 seconds, but it seemed far longer as she mulled my words and remembered what she had been taught about God and what she had experienced.  Then she smiled a glorious smile with broken and missing teeth and I heard real humor in her voice for the first time, not the self-deprecating that had been there up until this point.  You know.  You got a fair number of people to stop and listen to your sermon on their way to work.  That’s a pretty good miracle in these parts.  People are usually in too big a hurry to stop for anything.  It’s always rush, rush, rush!   Maybe God was at work today in ways we can’t see.
     Sensing our interaction nearing an end, I asked if there was anything else she needed.  She said I had helped enough.  I asked again.  She said 75 cents would be great.  I asked why just 75 cents?  She said she almost had enough money to ride the bus.  I questioned her with the words, “Air conditioning?”  She got excited and then dropped her eyes and then said I must work with homeless a lot.  I did, and I had lots of friends who did.  Her eyes said everything.  I dug around in our ash tray for the coins.  Me, who seldom gives out cash, gladly gave her from our stash of nickels and dimes and a quarter.  She thanked me, asked me the time, and then asked if I’d be mad if she waited to eat until she got on the bus.  I told her the food and drinks were hers to enjoy as she saw fit.  She said she wanted to enjoy her feast in the air conditioning and then maybe grab a nap until they kicked her off the bus.
     Some of you may have missed the significance of her excitement and then sadness and this ending.  Sometimes, the only relief that those who are homeless get from the elements are from bus rides on city busses.  The thoughts of hotel rooms are so far above their expectations that the best they can hope for are breaks on city buses.  In northern climates, heated busses are a relief from the bitter cold.  In places like Florida, the only respite from the heat and humidity are air conditioned busses.  Busses for homeless women also serve as a kind of protection against sexual assault and rape.  Society, more often than not, does not want homeless folk sleeping or hanging out in places we like to frequent.  That means they are forced into the shadows.  Guess what happens in the shadows, out of sight and too far from the sound of shouting voices to homeless women and children.  For Marie, the busses of Daytona Beach are a sanctuary, a respite from not just the heat and humidity, but from those who prey on women who are homeless.  By moving before God cracked me over the head with a 2 X 4, by engaging with the cashier and folks in the handimart, and by listening to Marie, what did we Adventers learn, we who live 9 hours to the north and west?
     Marie collects coins to ride the bus.  Only on the bus does she get a break from the heat and humidity.  More importantly, it’s only on the bus that she can let her guard down a bit.  Of course, standing before you this day in this pulpit, I wonder how much she can really let that guard down.  Folks in that handimart were sure she was lazy, that she could get a job if she wanted.  I wonder how she can ever break that cycle?  How can she get clean?  How can she get clothes?  Heck, how can she ever get a smile that will allow her to interview successfully for a “good” job?  Even more successfully, given her modest desires and obvious experiences, what damage has been done to her by her fellow human beings?  How many times has she been raped?  How many times has she been assaulted?  How many times has she been bruised or stung by folks flinging the very coins she needs to find respite?  Worst of all, what have their judgmental words done to her?  How many times have people demanded she be kicked off the bus?  How many times have people commented loudly how much she smelled?  How many folks have poked fun at her smile?  How many have done so smugly claiming to be sons and daughters of God?
     Brothers and sisters, there are lots of Marie’s and men like Marie in our community.  In fact, I know another lady named Marie that Donna and Ranger Steve, in particular, tried to help here in our community.  The “divine things” of God is how we do trying to minister to them.  The losing our life for His sake and the sake of the Gospel is how we minister to the Marie’s of our community in His name!  I know.  We are aging; we are shrinking; we have tons of worldly excuses for avoiding His call, His demands, upon our lives.  Standing against all those excuses, though, is His promise.  In dying to self, He promises abundant life; in our embrace of the Cross, He promises life beyond measure.  And in serving the Marie’s of the world He reminds us that we have served Him in ways far better than we will ever understand or appreciate on this side of the grave.  Every now and then, though, He tears that shroud for our sakes.  Every now and then, brothers and sisters, He gives us glorious insight into His redeeming work in the world around us.
     It would be easy to stand before you this morning and mock the hard-hearted churches of NE Florida this morning, churches that, as this story was told this morning, each of us no doubt thought should be doing better.  It would be easy to give each of you and “atta boy” or “atta girl” for your thankful gifts to the discretionary account y’all make possible.  After all, each of you who supports the church or gives thankfully to the Discretionary Fund has a share in that ministry to Marie.  As stupid as it sounds in your ears, I did not have the $11-12 to help her myself.  Heck, were it not for the stupid change in my ash tray, I would not have had the 75 cents to finish off the bus ride.  So you each had a hand in that ministry.  It would even be easy to point to the miracle that Marie noticed—that people rushing to work took time to wrestle with God in a handimart of all places.
     But in those efforts to focus, we would have lost the bigger picture, the bigger miracle.  How big is our God?  So big that He can use the change in your pastor’s ash tray and a couple pennies from each of you to provide meaningful relief to a marginalized daughter; so big that He can use a willful, slug-like discerning and vacationing priest like me to stop traffic in a handimart and force them to begin to re-focus on divine things in their community;  so big that this encounter, which happened 9 hours to the southeast of here, might actually teach us about our attitudes and about those whom we see in street corners or in our parish hall or in public spaces we wish we did not, and so big that He can use our embrace of His Cross to give us all glimpses of that Resurrected life to which He call all of humanity!  And, knowing it would not be Gospel were it not even better than we think, He gives you and me and all our brothers and sisters in the Church the privilege and responsibility of inviting all those we encounter, being those who look and sound like us or those who look like Marie or the folks on the corners in Nashville looking for help or the stranger in our favorite department store or even the staff that serves us food when we eat out.  It is so easy to fall into the siren song of the world, to focus on the world and events and people in our lives with our mind focused on human things.  Our Lord Christ, though, calls us to engage the world steeped in the wisdom and love and mercy of God.  When we do that, my brothers and sisters, when we truly engage others, consciously aware that they were gloriously fashioned as were we, that is when you and I begin to experience the barest glimpses of the eternal promises He offers.  Perhaps even more significantly than that, though, others get to see Him, our Savior and our Redeemer, alive and working through us!

In Christ’s Peace,