Thursday, January 24, 2008

Epiphany III,

Epiphany 3 January 27, 2008

Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4,
I Corinthians 1:10-18,
Matthew 4:12-23

Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American on the Supreme Court.

Here is a story he often included in his speeches around the country:

There were two sisters. They had lived with their parents and brothers and sisters in a dilapidated old house since their birth. Time went on, theirs brothers and sisters married and moved out, their parents died; the sisters remained.

Sometime in their mid-forties they had a big falling out; such a big falling out that they stopped speaking to each other. They were too stubborn for either one to leave the little house, so they continued living there together.

A chalk line divided the bed room into two halves. The chalk divided all the rooms in the house, so that the sisters could come and go and get her own meals without trespassing on her sister’s space. In the stillness of the night, each could hear the other breathing and snoring.

This went on for many, many years; then one night one sister got up to go to the bathroom and fell, breaking her hip. Her sister heard her scream and scooted across the chalk line to her side. She called for help, then sat in the floor and held her sister while waiting for the ambulance.

Sometime, in the midst of the darkness and the pain, the words I’M SORRY and I LOVE YOU were exchanged. In the midst of broken-ness, healing had taken place.

Justice Marshall always ended that story by saying: The legal system can force open doors, and even, sometimes, knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me. Bridge building. It’s a good name for the ministry of healing that is the church.

As we look at the world’s continued darkness; its wars and disease and ignorance and prejudice and violence, we can see that at the root of most of this is our disconnectedness; our alienation from God, from each other, and most of all form our true selves.

It is the lack of genuine, open, trusting, loving community in the world that causes most of our problems, or makes them worse.

The church is called to a simple ministry in the midst of the world’s darkness and disconnection; we are called to shine the light of God into the world and to pull the world’s disparate peoples into one community: the people of God.

This calling has never made much sense to the world. It looks like a quixotic quest, a nonsense proposition. The world operates by a different set of rules.

Perhaps it’s not exactly cut-throat, dog-eat-dog out there; but it certainly is look out for #1 and know who your friends are and you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

Ever since Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and called out Simon Peter and James and John, the Sons of Zebedee; those who were left behind have felt that those who went were foolish.

Even Jesus had family problems in this regard. Our Gospel lesson says he left the tiny village of Nazareth and moved, made his home, settled in the larger, more exciting town of Capernaum. It was kind of like moving from Gibsonville to Chapel Hill.

Over in Chapter 12 we read that his family back in Nazareth started hearing things about what Jesus was saying and doing up in “the cities” and “his Mama and them” went to take him home because they thought he had embarrassed the family enough.

As Paul puts it in our Second Lesson: “The message of the Cross is foolishness . . .”
It is interesting to note the Paul says this in a letter to a congregation that is in the midst of a huge church fight. Their fight in the Church in Corinth had to do with which Pastor they liked best.

I’m one of Paul’s people; I’m one of Cephas’ people, I’m one of Apollo’s people; and for the hyper self-righteous people, “H’mp, I belong to Christ.” Thank God, we never get that silly around here . . . do we?

And Paul’s remedy for all this infighting and fussing and back-biting was the foolishness of the cross, the ridiculousness of the Gospel story. He calls upon the Corinthians to remember the highly unlikely and paradoxical way that God chose to save the world.

This is also the highly unlikely and paradoxical way God calls upon us to behave in the world; as God’s ambassadors and healing-agents and bridge-builders between cultures and peoples.

That is the task which we have been given, that the exactly who we have been called to be. WE are called to respond to God’s act of building a bridge of love to us by turning and building bridges of love to others.

We are called to build bridges of forgiveness and vulnerability and risk-taking, bridges that are cobbled together with the little crosses of suffering we bear for one another each and every day.

Bridges laid down across the great chasms of division and distrust, fear and hatred that afflict and terrorize our world. Bridges that seek to bring all those who have lived in great darkness into the even greater light of God’s love.

Back in the 1980’s there was a man named Larry Trapp living in Lincoln, Nebraska. His name was doubly ironic; he was a man trapped in his own hatred and trapped in his own body. Larry Trapp was suffering from a fatal disease and was confined to a wheel chair; he was nearly blind, he was also the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska. He truly was a man trapped in darkness.

Larry Trapp became obsessed with driving Michael Weisser out of town. Weisser is Jewish; he is the cantor of the Lincoln Synagogue. Trapp barraged the Weisser home with hate mail, at home and on the job. He made incessant threatening phone calls, he organized demonstrations, He did everything he could to make life a living hell for Michael Weisser and his family.

Cantor Weisser and his family were truly intimidated and scared. He had a wife and children, he wanted to protect them. But Michael Weisser was also a man who was unwilling to let another person’s hate prevent him from showing love. So he started calling Larry Trapp’s home, always getting the answering machine. So, he always left a message. He said, “This is Michael Weisser. I’d like to talk to you. I want to know why you’re doing this to me.”

Finally, one day, Larry Trapp answered the phone, screaming and cursing and threatening, “WHAT DO YOU WANT? YOU’RE HARASSING ME!”

And Michael Weisser said, “I Know you have a hard time getting around and can’t drive, and I was wondering if you might need a ride to the grocery store or something?” After a very long stunned silence, Larry Trapp quietly replied, “Uh, no, I’ve got that covered, but thanks for asking.”

Larry and Michael kept talking by phone. After a while, Larry Trapp started going over to the Jewish Cantor’s house for dinner, they became friends, and when it became apparent he had no where else to go, the Weisser family invited Larry to move in with them. And he did, dying there in Michael’s arms a few months later.

Somewhere along the way Larry Trapp left the KKK. He spent his last time on earth spreading a message of love in a world of hate; Larry Trapp became an apostle to Klansmen and other hate groups; trying to get them to see the great light of love and forgiveness he had seen and experienced. (TIME Feb. 17, 1992)

We are called to a ministry healing, a ministry of building bridges of love and forgiveness between people, a ministry of shining the light of God’s love on all people. Are we ready to embrace this ministry? Are we prepared to let the light of Christ shine through us? Are we willing to reach out to the world with the foolishness of the cross?

Amen and amen.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Epiphany 2,

EPIPHANY 2 January 20, 2008

Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42

Her name was Mrs. Gammons. I don’t remember her first name, but I do remember her:
she was my Sunday School teacher.

Mrs. Gammons was a shy, quiet, reserved woman. With her graying hair done up in a stiff, 60’s updo, and wearing a simple gray or blue dress, she looked a lot like Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show.

I don’t believe I ever heard her say more than two or three words outside her Sunday School class. She taught the “Intermediate Boys,” which, in our little mountain church,
was a fancy name for a class of all males from the time they learned to read until they went to High School, roughly 6 to 12.

Our tiny classroom was in the damp church basement with two old wooden pews
and a broken table. There were heating pipes running just barely over our heads and water would occasionally seep in and puddle in the floor.

Mrs. Gammons suffered patiently the indignities heaped upon her by a rather uninterested
and unruly gang of farm boys. We hid stray cats and dogs under her desk and threw tiny spit-balls into her hair when had her back turned to write on the board.

And, miracle of miracles, week after week, she came back to try again.

She had no particular talent for the job,
she had never read a book on Christian Education
she had never been to a teacher’s workshop.

She just came in each week and took the roll,
Putting a Gold Star beside our name for:
Bible brought,
Offering given,
and Memory Verse learned.

After the paperwork was completed, the lesson began. First we read the scripture out of our personal brought from home Bibles. (Baptists take their own Bibles to church. The first time I went to a Lutheran Church, Holy Trinity in Chapel Hill when I was in college, I took my Black Bible with my name in Gold on the front. The usher took one look at me and said, “You’re not Lutheran, are you?”)

We read the scripture, then paragraph by paragraph we would take turns reading the lesson outloud. Mrs. Gammons would help us with the hard words and at the end of each paragraph she would sum up the meaning and ask us if we had any questions. We never did.

This went on for 45 minutes or so, and then we were done, mercifully for us, and I imagine for her. But sometimes we finished early, before the bell, and she would just stare at us with the look of someone who wished to be someplace, any place, else.

She would look up at the ceiling, as if by wishing she could make the bell ring, then she would look at us, and sigh, and THEN:

She would sigh again, and begin haltingly, in her gentle soft voice; to tell us about Jesus.

She told us about how much he meant in her life, about what a loving, kind, gentle and comforting presence He had been for her in times of hurt and sorrow.

She talked about how Jesus challenges us, dares us, leads us and helps us to be better people; better in how we treat others, and better in how we treat ourselves.

This was during the 60’s and while many others in our community were saying extremely hateful and racist things, she told us that Jesus loved black people as much as he loved us and that we ought to love black people to and treat them right.

She said that Jesus lived forgiveness and taught forgiveness and that since Jesus had forgiven our mistakes and sins, that we ought to forgive the mistakes and sins of others.

And somehow, not really knowing how or when it happened, when my time in Mrs. Gammons class was over, I discovered that I was in love with Jesus, a love that has never left me in the 40 years since.

In seminary I learned a lot of things I never learned in Sunday School, but I never had to unlearn anything I learned from her. It’s all true.

Mrs. Gammons was my JOHN THE BAPTIST!
She was the one who pointed at Jesus and said,
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the Sin of the world!”

Mrs. Gammons was my Andrew, bringing me to Jesus and saying, “He’s the One!”

Mrs. Gammons was the one who brought me to Christ!

All of us are called to be witnesses. Very often we make it more difficult than it really it is, this witnessing business.

It’s mostly a matter of pointing at Jesus and saying, “He’s the One!” We do not need any special knowledge or special training to do that.

My Daddy had a well-known penchant for silly jokes. Why did the Chicken cross the road? Type jokes. Here’s one of his better ones:

A traveling salesman pulls into a small town and asks a little boy; DO YOU KNOW WHERE JOHNSON’S FEED AND SEED IS?







Little boy: “Well, I know one thing you don’t know. I know I ain’t lost!”

Above and beyond everything else the church is called to know one thing and to do one thing.

We are called to know and love God in Christ, and we are called to bring others into that circle of love.

That is our purpose for being, it is the reason for our existence, it is the end to which we work, it is our mission, it is our ministry, it is our calling.

Like the Israelites in our lesson from Isaiah, we are beckoned by God to be a LIGHT to the nations.

It is too light, too small, to tiny, a thing that we should just talk about Christ and our faith among ourselves, we must share Christ with the World.

It is our calling to be like John, pointing to Christ as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

It is our calling to be like Saint Andrew, bringing our friends to meet Jesus.

It is our calling to be like Mrs. Gammons, telling others about our love for Jesus.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Baptism of Our Lord, January 13, 2008

The Baptism of Our Lord January 13, 2008
Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Title: On the Baptism of Jesus

I have lost count of the baptisms I have done. Most of them have been; well, ordinary’s not the word I’m looking for. No Baptism is ordinary, at least not to the one being baptized or to his or her loved ones. But, most of the Baptisms I have done have been regular. That’s it, regular. In the church, on Sunday morning, with vestments and sponsors and pictures, etc. etc. After thirty years of baptisms, I sort of remember most of them, but I couldn’t make a list or call up all the names.

A few years ago I went to preach Homecoming at a Church in NC I pastored years ago. After the worship service, I reconnected with the family of a man I’ll call Jimmy. One Sunday years ago, Jimmy’s Grandmother came to see me in my office. She said,

“Pastor, I have a grandson named Jimmy. You’ve never met him. He’s 32. He ran away from home at 13. He’s led a bad life. He’s come to stay with me now. He’s dying. He has a brain tumor and there’s nothing they can do. He wanted to know if you would come and talk to him.” I said of course. She said, there’s not much time. I said I would come after lunch, and so I did. She took me into the living room, introduced me to Jimmy and left us alone.

He looked like an emaciated Hell’s Angel; jeans, black tee-shirt, leather jacket, dirty ball cap perched on his chemo-bald head. A little boy trying to act tough, I thought.

He wanted to “get right with God” before he died, he said. He was pulling in every spiritual tradition he could think of. He wanted to make confession and get absolution like a Catholic; get saved and baptized by immersion like a Baptist, and get the Holy Spirit like a Pentecostal. I told him I would do the best I could; the Confession/Absolution and the Baptism I was sure I could do, the Spirit thing was up to God. I guess when you’re staring death in the face, you don’t want to leave any salvific stone unturned.

He started talking and talked for a couple of hours. Remember, he had run way to join the circus at 13, he had spent almost 20 years in carnivals and county fairs and amusement parks. Of the Ten Commandments, there was only one he had not broken, and frankly, that was not from lack of trying. His story was hard for me to hear;
I never worked so hard at listening in my life.

His sins were real, not imagined; his guilt was deserved, not imposed. There was nothing exciting or interesting or titillating about his sins; they were the ordinary products of lust and desire and a real disregard for the welfare or rights of others. Here was the real character; A SINNER!

And it was not humanly easy for me to pronounce forgiveness on his wasted life. He had no time for a true amendment of his life, no time to make restitution or do penance, no time for me to see if his change of heart was genuine. There was no point in corrective therapy, no time for behavior adjustment plans, no purpose to be served in berating him.

There was only time for the working of the Gospel: for Repentance and Forgiveness, for Baptism and Grace, for Death and the Promise of New Life.

So, I stifled my impulse toward either judgment or comfort and followed the ritual in the Lutheran Book of Worship for Individual Confession and Forgiveness. I heard his confession, I decided it was genuine, I pronounced forgiveness.

And we set a time and place for his baptism: the next day at 1:00 PM; in his uncle’s above ground swimming pool.

When I drove up the next day, the “community of faith” had already gathered. Jimmy’s relatives were standing on one side of the pool: stout, plain, sturdy, good country church-going people. Jimmy’s friends were on the other side: loud, brassy, somewhat sleazy bikers and carnies of questionable taste and character. They had all come together to to see Jimmy get baptized.

I went into the water first, Jimmy followed. I said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and dunked him under the water. He came us sputtering and cussing and said That water’s cold. And, on impulse, I said, oops, looks like that one didn’t take” and dunked him again, much to the delight of all around.
The second time he came up, he grinned and held his tongue, hugged me, and then pulled me under. It was a good baptism.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. People often ask, Why did Jesus need to be baptized? John preached a baptism for Repentance, Jesus was sinless, what did he have to repent of? He wasn’t like Jimmy, in need of being washed clean of his sins. It is a good question.

Some people answer it by talking about the other things Baptism is and does: It was Jesus’ ordination to ministry. It was his anointing as the Saviour. It was the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. Yes, it was all those things, but it seems to me that those answers avoid the question rather than answer it.

John’s Baptism WAS a baptism of repentance and our text shows that John was the first to ask the obvious question. Verse 14: “Do you come to me (for Baptism?)” In verse 15 Jesus gives his answer: it is necessary for me “to fulfill all righteousness.” To fulfill all righteousness means “to do all things necessary to fulfill my calling from God.”

Jesus was called and sent of God to be the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Saviour of the World.To do that, Jesus had to “take on the sins of the world.” When Jesus stepped into the river Jordan to be baptized by John, he began the process of taking on the sins of the world, a process that was completed on the cross. As the Nicene Creed says, he came down from heaven “For us and for our salvation.” The beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry was the taking on of the sins of the world, in his baptism and on the cross.

When Jesus was baptized, he stepped into the water covered with sin, the sins of the world, my sins, your sins,Jimmy’s sins.

Please turn to page 280 in the Red book, the ELW. Top of the page, upper left hand corner. It’s the Funeral Service. Notice it says there “Thanksgiving for Baptism.” Pray with me:

When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father; we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

In Christ’s Baptism he was baptized into our sins, just as we were baptized into his death. And as he was raised from the grave, we too have been released from sin and death. That day in the swimming pool, Jesus took on the many, many sins of Jimmy; and at the same time, Jimmy took on new life in Christ.

I believe this is most certainly true. So much so, that two weeks later at Jimmy’s funeral, I was confident in proclaiming his presence with Christ in Paradise. For, if Jimmy’s not there, then the Gospel’s not true, and none of us has any hope.

The Gospel is that our sins have been forgiven. our death has been overcome, our hope has been restored,our future has been promised.

Thanks be to God, Amen.