Wednesday, June 28, 2006

PENTECOST 4: RCL texts for July 2, 2006

LESSONS: Lamemtations 3:22-33, Ps. 30, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43
Of Faith and Fear (and Finances)

National Geographic carries a regular feature called Zip Code USA, in which they focus on the place and people within a particular Zip Code. IN June of 2006, it was my home town, Mt. Airy, NC 27030. While the article focused manly on the Bunker twins, Eng and Chang, America's first famous "Siamese" or conjoined twins, who after a career with PT Barnum, settled in Mt. Airy and raised families; as an aside it mentioned the radio obituaries.

Now, for years I have told a story about the "Moody's Obituary Column of the Air," and people have doubted my word that such a thing existed. (In other words, they thought I made it up, which would of been fine, had I admitted making it up, but because I insisted it was true, they considered my a liar, not a nice thing to call your Pastor, even if you are only half serious) so I was grateful to be vindicated in a serious print resource.

The story has to do with eating breakfast at my Grandparent's house. We all lived on the same farm, in houses about a quarter of a mile apart. I spent one or two nights a week at my grandparents house, which was good because instead of cereal I got bacon and biscuits for breakfast, but it was bad in that I had to sit very still and eat quietly (which is hard for a 6-year-old) so that Grandpa could listen to the aforementioned obituaries.

It always began with eerie organ music, then a deep, deep voice said, WILLARD JONES, OF ROUTE 3 LOWGAP, PASSED AWAY LAST EVENING AT NORTHERN SURRY HOSPITAL. HE WAS 72.

And so it went through 5 or 6 names. Now, over time, I developed the notion that the voice on the radio was the voice of God. After all, who else would know all that stuff about all those people? And I further decided that the purpose of the obituaries was to warn the rest of us to straighten up and fly right. After all, didn't Jesus say that he would come like a thief in the night, and weren't these death stories the first thing we heard in the morning? So I ate my breakfast in trembling silence, and went out into my day trying to be as circumspect as possible.

One day, my Daddy dropped me off at Elmer Timmon's barber shop to get a haircut while he went to town to get fertilizer at the FCX (Farmer's Cooperative Exchange).
I liked Elmer's. It was a small concrete building in the corner of his yard, it shared parking with the Baptist church where Elmer was a Deacon. He had lots of Boys Life Magazines and Superman comic books, and always gave us suckers.

I went in and called out "Hey Elmer!", and Elmer replied, "Hey Delmer!" There was someone in the chair, so I started reading, when suddenly, my blood ran cold, my heart almost stopped, I couldn't breath. Because God had spoken, God's voice rang out in the very room in which I was sitting, the voice that haunted my near sleep nightmares was palpably present, not three feet away from me, and God said, "SAY ELMER, COULD YOU TAKE A LITTLE MORE OFF THE EARS, AND LEAVE A BIT MORE FOR ME TO COMB OVER, THAT BALD SPOT SEEMS TO BE GETTING BIGGER.

I needed no UCC ad campiagn to convince me that God was still speaking, I was in the room when God Spoke! And I did what any reasonable, impressionable, imaginative, fundamentalist 6 year old would have done. I ran to the bathroom, turned out the light, locked the door and hid under the sink.

(It took quite a bit of gentle coaxing and promises of candy to get me out of that bathroom, where Elmer did the best he could to explain the concept of radio announcer
to me)

In our Gospel lesson, I was struck by the words FEAR and FAITH. After the woman with the flow of blood touched Jesus and he stopped and asked who touched him etc, it says she "came in fear and trembling, fell down before him , and told him the whole truth. He (Jesus) said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well.'"

In the wrap-around story of Jairus' daughter, at this point , the text says, "some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But Jesus says to the man, "Do not fear, only believe (have faith)."

As demonstrated by the story of the obituaries, when I was a child I had a lot of faith, I also had a lot of fear. My faith was faith in the reality of God, not any sort of trust in the goodness or compassion of God. And my fear was rooted in a fear of the power of that real but vengeful God I had conjured up from hints in Sunday School and Fundamentalist preaching and comic books and horror movies and God knows what else.

As I have grown older, faith and fear have remained in dynamic tension in my life. Just as my faith has matured and become more sophisticated, my fears have grown less generalized and more realistic. But they are still there as they are for all of us.

All of us fear things: terrorism, avian flu, economic collapse, earthquake, fire and flood, to name a few. And the last few years have shown us that our fears are realistic and founded in reality, not fantasy as were mine.

And the question is, as we face these realisitc fears, where do we place our faith, our assurance and hope for the future? In money and its accumulation and clout? In armies and governments and secret agents? Is it any surprise that in this time of generalized fear and anxiety, we have another Superman movie, a Saviour from the skies.

The scriptures call us to trust in God, a thing much easier said than done. Lamentations reminds us "that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, (God's) mercies never come to an end." and then goes on to talk about those times when one feels abandoned by God, a realistic look at faith in the face of fear. The Psalm repeats this theme, as in "then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear" but also exclaimes, "O Lord, My God, I will give you thanks forever."

And our lesson from 2 Corinthians reminds us not to hoard our money in time of other's need, but to share our resources with the needy, trusting in God to provide for us through them in our time of need. Generosity is an act of faith overcoming fear. (Warren Buffet is sufficient illustration here.)

By the way, I not only heard God, I met God. My Daddy's cousin, Ralph Epperson, owned that radio station, WPAQ in Mount Airy, and Ralph introduced me to God (by the way, God's name isn't YHWH apparently. It's Ernest.) Ralph was featured many times on NPR for his role in preserving authentic Appalachian "mountain music" through his long running live Saturday morning radio show. Ralph's microphone is in the Smithsonian.

He passed away last month. I wasn't in Mount Airy at the time, but I'm sure his passing was noted on "The Moody's Obituary Column of the Air." just like everybody else's. Which is how it should be.



Thursday, June 15, 2006

Pentecost 2: RCL texts for June 18, 2006

THE LESSONS: Ezeliel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13) 14-17; Mark 4:26-34
"the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how."

My Grandpa Reid Chilton was born in 1892, in the general vacinity of Mount Airy, NC. (If you are unfamiliar with Mt. Airy, check out the latest edition of the National Geopgraphic magazine.) Grandpa was one of many children in the Chilton family and when, after the turn of the century, his parents decided to moved to Winston-Salem NC to open a boarding house, they left young Reid with his uncle, a Primitve Baptist preacher named Green Arrington. Grandpa lived with the Rev. Arrington and worked on his farm to earn his keep. When I was a kid in the late 50's early 60's, all my grandpa's stories bagen with the line "I recollect when I was living with Uncle Green Arrington. . . '

One story had to do with Uncle Green's inadvertent introduction to the then new pentecostal practice of snake-handling. Uncle Green was not a strict Primitive Baptist, holding to Separatism, he was willing to tell anybody they were going to Hell without Jesus, so when Pleasant Mountain Holiness invited to preach during their revival, he saddled up his mule and off he went.

After he got through preaching, he sat down and took a long drink of water and mopped his brow and was startled to see the deacons bringing in cages full of snake. He looked at the snakes and then asked the Head Deacon, "what are them for?"

"they's for handling, proving your faith, like it says in Matthew. Do you want the first one?" Uncle Green said, "No, but I do want to know where the back door is?" They said they din't have a back door. Uncle Green said, "All right. Where exactly do you want one!" (that story has nothing to do with Sunday's texts, I just like it.)

One thing Grandpa and Uncle Green never saw eye to eye on was baseball. Uncle Green thought it and all other games, dances and youthful frivolities were the devil's handmaids, tempting young folk off towards hell. Which was pretty hard on Grandpa, since he was a very good baseball player.

One Saturday when Grandpa was about 15 or 16, he was scheduled to play for Dry Pond against Mt. Airy. Uncle Green told him he could go if he planted the peas first.
This was no small operation. In those days they cleared land by cutting down the trees and burning out the stumps, and then waiting for the biggest ones to rot, in the meantime plowing around them. They planted peas in the corn-field, using the stalks as natural stakes. Uncle Green wanted Grandpa to sow several buckets full of peas in the cornfield. Everytime Grandpa emptied the bucket, Uncle Green sent him back into the field with a full one. It was getting late, Grandpa was running out of time. And then he stumbled upon a burntout stump. Grandpa glanced around, nobody could see, he dumped the entire bucket of peas into that hollowed out stump and covered them with dirt. He ran out of the field, put on his uniform, grabbed his bat and glove, jumped on a mule and took off.

Things were fine for several weeks, then Uncle Green was in the cornfield plowing with the mule. he happened upon a stump over flowing with a cornucopia of peavines. In the vernacular, Grandpa didn't sit down for a week. Corporal punishment was very popular in that time and place.

The peas grew behind Grandpa's back, he had nothing do do with it. The Kingdom of God is like that. We throw the seed around and God takes those seed and creates the kingdom, creates minitry, creates love and healing and grace moments, as it were out of the nothingness of our mediocre efforts. And we continually try to come up with new "transformational strategies" and "church growth plans". And most of them work for a while, sort of. The reality is that our church growth strategy has been around since the beginning of the church. Love one another. Take care of each other. Act like Christians. Sing songs of praise, preach the word, celebrate the sacraments.
and then, as Luther says, drink your beer and trust the Word of God to do its work.
I especially like the drink your beer part.



Friday, June 09, 2006

HOLY TRINITY SUNDAY: Readings for June 11, 2006

I'm doing this from memory, because I haven't seen a copy, mine or anyone else's, of Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul On Ice" in about 30 years. In that book, Cleaver tells of his first encounter with Christianity, a religion class at Soledad Prison. He remembered being asked to come up with an explanation of the Trinity. He studied the text and the Bible and had an idea. He said they went to class and the teacher, a local minister, asked if anyone could explain the Trinity. Several people raised thier hands, Cleaver included. The minister/teacher pointed to first one, then another. After each one, he said. "Wrong, sit down." Before he got to Cleaver, he quit and said, "This was the point. It's impossible to explain the Trinity without getting it wrong." Cleaver was glad he had not been called on. He was sure his comparison to three-in-one oil was going to get a major rebuke.

Although his pedagogy was a bit weak, the teacher had a point. Explaining the Trinity is tricky, nigh on to impossible. Three persons, one God, etc. And the most common way most of us think about it (modalism) is heresy. I am reminded of my Aunt Mildred on the telephone, when she would hang up she would say, "Well, I would tell you more, but I already told you more than I heard myself." At least, that's what Uncle LW said she said. When we try to explain the Trinity, we usually tell our listeners more than we heard (from the Bible) ourselves.

Me, I'm lazy. I use golf theology. Used to play golf with minister friend of mine and we came up with the term. We got to thinking about all the people we knew who spent a lot of time on the golf course complaining about their lie, or trying to improve their lie, legally or, most often, illegally and sneakily. And we realized that neither of us worried too much about all that. We were just glad to be out of the office and out on the golf course, whacking away at the ball in the general direction of the hole.

then, being preachers, we started thinking of all those pastor friends who were always trying to improve their lie, make things make better sense, etc. And we decided that we were golf theologians, we preferedd to take things as they came,
to play it as it laid, to whack away in the general direction of heaven.

So, rather than spend a lot of time of the philosophical understanding of the Trinity, I prefer to think a lot about the Trinity's implications for the Christian life, about how God exists in community and so do we, about how each of us has different spiritual personalities and some respond to the Father, others to the Son and many to the Spirit, and how the trinity both touches all the bases and keeps them in balance.

So, whack away this Sunday. Be careful about modalism and retain the mystery and things will be fine. ;-)



Friday, June 02, 2006

PENTECOST SUNDAY:RCL Texts for June 4, 2006

One of my college friends is an industrial scientist. One day, quite a few years ago, his then six year old son was sitting in the back seat eating an apple. Suddenly, he poked his father in the shoulder and said, "Dad, why does my apple turn brown." His father absent-mindedly replied. "When the skin is removed from the apple, air reaches the flesh of the apple and causes oxidation. This changes the apple's molecular structure and results in a brownish color."

The boy thought about this for several minutes and then said, "Dad are you talking to me?"

Often times, the meaning of the universe seems shrouded in mystery. And all too often, those who porport to know the truth speak in unknown tongues of complexity and, quite frankly, metaphysical bull crap.

Among the many things we can celebrate and learn from on Pentecost is the fact that it was God's apparent desire that all should understand the truth about Jesus Christ, that all should understand in their own language, that all should be revealed to all, in as plain and simple a language as possible.

I have been reading Henry Chadwick's "History of the Early Church". It is a good antidote to both the Left Behind Apocalyptic nonsense and the Da Vinci code hysteria.
As the saying goes, there's nothing new under the Sun. The Left Behinders are basically Montanists (early Second Sentury) and the Da Vinci Coders are Gnostics, (first to the fourth centuries). The Montanists were devoted to the Ecstatic Prophecies of three prophets, one of whom was Montanus, from whom they derived their name. Besides their direct line to God, they decided Jesus was coming to Phyrgia and it was going to be bloody and it was going to be next week.

And of course the gnostics were a loose definition for all sorts of folks who could, with many moderns,say they were "more spiritual than religous" (a nonsense statement). The main thing about gnostices was the idea of secret knowledge, that only the elite and the initiaited could have access to.

The early church countered these deviations by pointing out a very important fact, God's Spirit came to everyone and that the reason it came was to send us out with the gospel, to everyone, and instead of being hidden, the Christian story was shouted from the mountaintops for all to hear. The first Pentecostal experience was one which made sure everyone heard everything, in a language they could understand.

Bottom line: God was speaking, and God was speaking TO us.