Thursday, July 28, 2005
I am preaching at Lutheran Chapel in China Grove, NC this Sunday. They are having a year-long celebration of their 225th anniversary and have 12 guest preachers this year; former pastors, pastors who grew up in the congregation and a Bishop's Assistant. I was honored to be asked. I was Pastor there 1984 to 1989. I have to confess that I said yes partly out of ego and partly out of desire for some good North Carolina Southern cooking at the after service potluck,
(what Midwest Lutherans call "hot dish") When it comes to congregational dinners, rural and small town Lutherans in North and South Carolina are much more Southern than they are Lutheran. None of that veggie cassoroles with crunchy onion surprise on top and lime Jello for desert.
We're talking about fried chicken and country ham biscuits and pork barbecue and fresh boiled corn and creamed potatoes and field peas and homemade biscuits and greens and squash and thick tomatoes the color of blood and sliced as thick as a hockey puck. And cakes and pies and fruit cobblers and . . . oh my, my cholesterol just went up a few points writing that Faulknerian sentence. (Oh yeah, the iced tea; thick and brown and cold and sweet enough to rot your teeth)
"Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food." Thus sayeth the Lord. At least that's what Isaiah says the Lord says. And who am I to argue with Isaiah or the Lord?
There is something about a good church dinner that reminds us of what the Kingdom of God is supposed to be like. Everybody's there, even the ones who aren't there very often, or who don't like the Pastor, or who are at odds with others in the church about this, that or the other thing that is of vital importance right at this moment, but which will be forgotten in a year or two.
In the face of the "Fellowship Meal" in the "Fellowship Hall"; all of that seems to fade away and there we are together, sampling each other's food and admiring each other's children and asking after each other's health and listening to each other's stories and enjoying each other's company.
It is not by accident that Isaiah invokes the image of a feast as that to which God calls us. Growing up Metho/Baptist/Presbyterian, we didn't really have Feasts or Festivals in the church; not the formal Church Year ones anyway. Just Christmas and Easter really. But we had Feast Days anyway. We found times to celebrate with a feast. Homecoming with Dinner on the Grounds. Numerous family reunions, held at the Church after service and everyone was invited (and would have gone anyway, since we were all related by marriage or something.)
The first Sunday night of a revival, the last night of Vacation Bible School, etc. etc.
Because we knew instinctively that eating together in that way was something the church was supposed to do. And we knew that it was about more than food, it was about more than good fellowship and camardarie and community spirit. Deep in an inarticulated part of our souls, we knew it was about God, and about growing in God's grace and about growing as the Body of Christ, and about remembering that we were more than just some folk who liked to get together to sing hymns and listen to sermons; we were "a witness to the peoples."
And so, we are a people who feast. And we are a people who invite others to leave their differences at the door and come and eat with us, for the Lord says,
"Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price." And who said there's no such thing as a free lunch? Not God.
SECOND LESSON: Romans 9:1-5
"I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart."
True story. A friend of mine was the Pastor of a moderate sized Lutheran Church in a moderate sized Southern city. He was in his early 60's at the time of this incident. He's a collar-wearing Lutheran of the High Church type; black shirt, white collar all the way around and dangling gold pectoral cross on Sundays. Most Sundays after Service he and his wife ate at the fast food chicken place down the street. And almost every Sunday, they sat near two very nice Southern ladies who went to a local evangelical church. They often chatted about the weather or grandchildren or the local news; never about religion.
One Sunday my friend's wife was out of town, and he went to the restaurant alone. There, he again saw the two ladies and talked with them. He got up to go out just as a parishioner came in and sat down. The parishioner overheard the two ladies talking about the departed pastor.
One lady, "He's such a pleasant, nice man."
The other said, "Yes, too bad he's going to Hell."
And they both nodded and dabbed their lips and continued eating their chicken.
Not a lot of sorrow and unceasing anguish in evidence there. Yes, Paul believes that those without Christ are going to Hell. But he's not happy about it, for Christ's sake. (yes, I meant to say "for Christ's sake" and no, it isn't taking the Lord's name in vain. It is for Christ's sake that Paul cares about them,)
Paul was once a man who could happily condemn others to death and Hell for disgreeing with him about theology, but something changed him; an encounter with God's Living Love, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Most of you reading this are not likely to condemn others to Hell for being Lutheran (or Catholic or whatever), but some of us are just as intolerant in other ways. We look down on those whose faith seems simplistic or more literal than ours, we resent those who speak the words of piety with ease, who fill their prayers with the word "just" in every other breath. And, I'm "just" as guilty as anyone I'm pointing a finger at. (Sorry Miss Mitchell. It doesn't sound as good when its grammatically correct.)
So I commit this day to seek to feel "great sorrow and unceasing anguish" over those who fail to listen to me when I try to tell them the truth about God. ;-)
GOSPEL: Matthew 14:13-21
"he had compassion" I don't know if there are any more comforting words in the Bible. And "he had compassion." It is a face of God we've all looked for and needed in our lives. "He had compassion" didn't used to mean much to me, back when I was young and knew everything and had not had the time or inventiveness to really screw up in life. But I'm older now and I don't even like to think about the ways that I have been less than I meant or hoped to be in life.
I have not just failed to do good, I have on occasion done bad, and knew I was doing bad when I did it, and I did it anyway. And I don't know why and have no excuse except that I am human and that's what humans do sometimes.
And I don't blame anyone else, not my mother or my father or the racist South or Yankees or being brought up dirt-poor in the country or my wife or my children or my churches. It was just me and life and occasional fits of sorriness. And I'm sorry. And I need a universe and a God which does not condone or condemn me but one that cares about me. And I encounter that God in the words, "and he had compassion".
Thursday, July 21, 2005
- In the history of the world, wisdom and power go hand-in-hand all too infrequently. The powerful act foolishly and the wise are powerless or so it seems. Jimmy Carter as one of the smartest, perhaps wisest (they're not the same thing, see Bill Clnton) President the US ever had, but he was not seen by many as wielding his great power effectively. On the other hand, George Bush II has certainly succeeded in throwing the US's power around in the world. The wisdom of his use of power is doubted by many. (Just to avoid accusations of parisan politics, LBJ used and misused his power both wisely and unwisely, as did Richard Nixon. It's an equal opportunity disease.)
- The key combination here is the right mixture of humility, right intention and exercise of appropriate authority. That is Solomon is humble enough to know that the power put into his hands as king is daangerous and unwieldy and he needs help. He also desires to use the power for the good of the people, not for personal gain, i.e. right intention; and lastly, he is not afraid to use the power if need be.
- In using this text sermonically, one might reflect on the fact that every Christian's Vocation is an opportunity to serve God, and as such requires the same combination of humility, right intention and willingness to appropriately wield one's power.
- Lastly, I am reminded that though Solomon had "good intentions", the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and the Scriptures show him as not only a man of wisdom and discernment, but also one of conspicuous consumption and almost unrivaled sexual desire, though he did marry all the women, it was a lot of women. Which just goes to show that Luther was right when he said we are all "Saints and Sinners simultaneously" and then quoted the Portuguese proverb that "God draws straight with crooked sticks."
SECOND READING: Romans 8:26-39
I have been a pastor for 28+ years now. I have lost count of the funerals I have done. Some of them were for people I knew well and dearly loved; others were for people I had never met. Most were somewhere in between. At almost all of those funerals I read this scripture lesson.
It is a powerful promise of the resurrection, both for those who fear death and for those left behind by a loved one. And it is also very effective oratory, soaring in ways we don't normally preach in these conversational days.
Most of the time I had had an opportunity to visit with the families of the deceased and had spoken to them concerning God's promise of eternal Life. I have always centered my funeral preaching on the Hope of the Resurrection.
And then, three years ago, my Daddy died. It was, as we preachers sometimes like to say, a good death, it was time, he was 80, and he was sick, he's not suffering anymore, he didn't have much of a life anymore. And it hurts like Hell.
As I walked up to the open casket in Moody Funeral Home in Mt. Airy, as I stood there staring down at my Daddy's waxy, cold body dressed up in his Sunday suit, I said to myself, "Is it true, is it really true, those promises I have been spouting off for 25 years? My head says its true, but all my heart knows is that Daddy isn't here anymore."
I have decided that this is the place where we live our faith; between what we know, "Daddy's dead" and what we hope is true, "nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Between the puzzling pains of this world and the mysterious promises of the next.
GOSPEL: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Eventually Jesus is going to get through to the disciples about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. This text reminds me of an incident that happened while I was living in Nashville, in the early 1990's. It was before the nation-wide expansion of Video Store chains and we got our weekly family night movie in the Video section of the grocery store. It was part of our weekly Friday routine. Deborah, the boys and I went to Kroger (the boys were pre-teens) and got groceries for the week, ordered carryout Pizza to take home and rented a movie for the evening.
One week I noticed "All Quiet on the Western Front" (a movie about WWI) was shelved in the Westerns section. Being selectively anal, and classic books and movies being one of the things I am anal about, I took the movie to the pimply teenager at the desk and siad, "Excuse me, this video was accidently mis-shelved. though it has Western in the title, it is really about WWI and should not be in the Western section." She smacked her gum, smiled and said, "Thank you very much, we'll take care of it." I felt good, smart and virtuous.
The next Friday, I was back in the video store and guess what? "All Quiet on the Western Front" was back in the Western section. The scene above was acted out again, almost verbatim.
And the next week, and the next week, and the next week. It became a game. I was not angry or frustrated, just amused and perplexed; and curious, would they ever get it?
So it is with preaching. Same thing, over and over and over again. Responded to with pleasant smiles and nods and thank yous. And almost no comprehension. Or so it seems to us.
But we preachers have to remember, our proclamation of the Gospel is like a tiny mustard seed, it is a little thing, and not all of the seeds take root, not all of them grow. But when they do, watch out, they grow big.
Or it's like the yeast. When you ask someone what bread is made of, they say wheat, but without the yeast, there is no bread. It's just that the yeast goes un-noticed. It is like that thing which one searches for all one's life, and its been there all along and then one day you turn a perceptual corner and see it, really see it, for the first time.
So, we are fishers, not angels. Our job is spreading the seed, catching the fish, pointing at the jewels and pearls of God's world. It's the angels' job to sort it all out.
In the meantime, we just kept telling them. One day they will have ears to hear.
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
I have a confession to make. I am often afraid, often very, very afraid. Not so much for me, but for my family, my friends, my community, my church, my country. All sorts of others to be afraid for. I am fearful of the world and its dangers. I worry about my family on the road (my wife, and two boys in college). I worry about bad roads and bad drivers and cell phones and crooked cops and all sorts of things.
I am afraid of illness and disease, of flus that are stronger than our medicines, of cancers too quick to kill, of things we eat and ingest that will kill us now or later.
I am afraid of Republicans and Democrats, of rich people and poor people and complacent people who don't care. And I am afraid of homophobic people and of of people who may see me as homophobic and, and, and . .
I am afraid of terrorism and war and poverty and sickness, and well, you get it, I am afraid.
And yet I saih says, God says, "Be not afraid, my people." And the question is, with so much to fear, how do we "be not afraid."
And the not easy answer is to trust the truth when God calls us "my people".
If we are indeed God's people, we're called to bury our heads in the warm, sacred bosom and to rest the weight of our cares in the stong, Holy arms and to let God's strength and love soothe
the fear right out of our lives. For we are god's people.
ROMANS 8: 12-25 "Of Groaning and hoping"
I'm not often sure what to make of Paul's language here about Creation groaning, but it is an image with which I resonate, particlarly in the last few years. I am becoming more and more distressed about the carelessness with which we treat the earth. If the creation is groaning, it is groaning in pain and anguish at the way it has been treated by it's supposed caretakers.
My father died two years ago. He was 80. Except for a stint in the army he lived his whole life on the same 75 acre farm, except for a few unnecessary days in the ICU, essentially dying in the house where he was born.
He annoyed the H- l l out of me and my brothers with his cantankerous, "old-fashioned" ways. He used animals in the field, not tractors, he did little spraying of herbicides, he terraced the land in sweeping rows, he rotated the crops, he spread animal manure, etc., while his more progressive neighbors streamlined and industrialized their farming.
Because Daddy's way was more labor-intensive, I hated it. I didn't like farming anyway. I justr wanted to read my books , and think my great thoughts, not muck about in the dirt. I left the farm as soon as I could.
My younger brother became an architect and a gentleman farmer, tending the land with my father. At Dad's funeral, Tony used a word I had never considered in connection with my father. He told the crowd that in all those 40+ years on the farm together, the main thing Daddy had taught him was "Stewardship" of the land. This was surprising coming from my brother, for neither he nor Daddy were real churchmen. It wasn't a word I had ever heard at our house.
But it fit. It fit who Daddy was and it fit what he did. The land was never his, it was a gift, on loan from God, and it was his duty to take care of it as best he could. His wife and kids were never his, they were a gift, on loan from God, and it was his job to take care of them as best he could. And therein was his hope, his hope in God and for the future.
We too are called to be stewards of a Creation groaning in the midst of decay. WE are called to care and to care for the needs of the world, and with our resonse to that call, within our trust in God's future, lies our hope.
MATTHEW 13:24-30; 36-43 vs. 36 "tell us what the parable about the weeds in the field means."
As a preacher I take great comfort in the fact that Jesus had to explain his sermons too. That he had occasional bad luck with illustrations. That he was totally misunderstood, no matter how clear he tried to be.
This is how I see this scene. Jesus is up preaching and Peter and the boys are amening. Jesus is waxing eloquent on the wheat and the tares and the disciples are clapping hands, shouting "amen" and "help him - - - " well, not "Help him Jesus"; this is where the image breaks down a little but you get the idea; maybe "help him Elijah", yeah, that'll work.
Anyway, Church is over and they repair to the Head Deacon's house for some post-sermon chicken and biscuits with iced-tea and conversation.
After a few obligatory"Man, that was a fine sermon Jesus" remarks, somebody, probably Thomas, says "Uh, Jesus, just a question or two. There were parts of that sermon I wasn't exactly clear on."
And Jesus says, "Which parts would that be"
and Thomas says, ""Well, all of them. Just what were you talking about?"
Anyway, as a preacher, I take great comfort in this fact. And just as we can't be sure everybody will understand everything we say, we also can not be sure who is understanding the Gospel and who isn't. Is that a wheat or a weed? Who knows?
Well, God knows. And that's a good thing, cause its God's job to know, and if it was my job, I'd screw it up, because I have prejudices about these things, and would only pick my kind of weeds to go to heaven with me. Its a good thing God goes on grace and can see the wheat in the weeds, or we'd all be sunk.
Like Mark Twain said, "Heaven goes on Grace, not on merit. If it went by merit, your dog would get in and you would stay out."