What Is Your Name?

(sermon 6/19/22)

“Tormented Figure,” ca. 1640, Vienna. Image: Wikimedia Commons – used with permission

Luke 8:26-39   

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

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This story from Luke’s gospel follows just after Jesus and the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee, when they were caught up in a terrible storm that threatened to capsize their boat. But Jesus calms the storm, leaving the disciples amazed and wondering just what kind of person this is, where his power and authority coms from, if even the wind and the waves obey him.

They eventually come ashore in the region of the Gerasenes – a Gentile region, emphasized here by the detail that there was a herd of swine nearby, which were considered ritually unclean by the Jewish people. But unclean swine and unclean people notwithstanding, it’s here that Jesus has come. And they hardly get ashore before they’re accosted by the man in the story. Tormented, naked, dirty, loud, unrestrainable, unable to live in normal respectable society, driven out of town, rejected by the rest of the townspeople. He exhibited all the symptoms that the people of that time would have attributed to being possessed by evil spirits or demons. In our own times, that detail of the story can be unsettling, and many times people will debate whether he was really possessed by demons, or maybe “only” suffering from some kind of mental illness. Personally, I think dwelling on that issue becomes a distraction from a deeper point of this text. Whatever the actual details, the man was clearly “possessed” by something harmful, and that allows us to get to the real core of the good news embedded within it.

It’s interesting that when the man first speaks to Jesus, begging him not to torment him, it isn’t really clear whether it’s supposed to be the man speaking, or the demons. It’s also interesting that in this moment, the man doesn’t ask for Jesus’ help; he asks to be left alone with all that’s possessing and tormenting him. But Jesus continues, and asks “What is your name?” I don’t think that Jesus is really talking to demons here; I think he’s genuinely, compassionately, asking the man himself: Who are you – really? Look beneath and beyond everything that has piled on top, everything that’s burdened you – that has possessed your mind, your body, your being. Who are you? What is your name?

It’s the simplest, and yet maybe the most complex question that a person could consider. What if Jesus asked you the same question – who are you? Getting down below all the things that life has dumped on you that obscures you, under all the trauma, the abuse, the injustice, the resentments, the addictions. Under all the physical, mental, emotional distresses, the depression, the anxiety. Under the obsessions with wealth, or beauty, or sex, or power, under all of those things that can possess us every bit as genuinely and as destructively as any real demon ever could – with the same sincerity and compassion as he asked the Gerasene man, Jesus does actually ask us: Who are you? What is your name?

At first, the man in the story asks Jesus to leave him alone. Later, after the townspeople learn that Jesus has the power and authority to cause this kind of change in their world – and, no small detail, given the loss of a whole herd of swine that Jesus’ actions have already caused, the potential to have economic impact and upset the financial status quo – they ask Jesus to go away and leave them alone, too. In short, then or now, we humans often prefer to stick with the demons we know and have gotten familiar and comfortable with, rather that to accept and embrace the growth and freedom we don’t.

The townspeople felt threatened by the change that Jesus made possible – including the change that now that the man was healed, they were going to have to accept the healed man as their equal, after having spent years harming him and denying his true, equal humanity. They were going to have to give up their assumptions of superiority over the man.

This weekend, we recognize both Pride here in Louisville, as well as Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the freeing of the last enslaved people following the Civil War. These two celebrations remind us that still too many people in our own society have been possessed and held hostage to the evils named not Legion, but Homophobia, Bigotry, and Racism. And we know that the news has been filled with stories of people who feel just as afraid and threatened as those townspeople in the story were, when faced with the liberating changes in our own society – when faced with change that threatens their own feelings of privilege and superiority over other groups of people, when Christ shows those other people to also really be named Equal. Accepted. Beautiful. Created in God’s Image.

On a more personal level, I suppose we can probably see at least something of ourselves in the man Jesus healed. The torments. The things clouding our own perception of self, self-identity, and self-worth. We can probably also identify with his fear and uncertainty, too, until he’s actually healed and everything turns out OK.

But here’s where comparing the man’s story with our own gets a little tricky for us. We already know the ending of the man in the story. But we don’t know the ending of our own story. We don’t know how any ways that Jesus might change us if we allow him to will affect us. Will the changes be easy, or will they come at real cost and create a lot of discomfort? The ending of our story hasn’t been written yet. As people of faith, we live in the “already/not yet” phase of the kingdom of God, so it can be a scary thing to examine our lives – to really come to terms with who we really are, and to be open, allowing Christ to work with us, to change us. But the good news in this story is one of assurance. Since we know that Jesus does, in fact, have the ability to calm the storm, to heal the Gerasene man, and to perform the miracles that Luke will lead us through following this story, we can trust him when he draws us toward personal change – personal growth. Toward pathways of greater peace, and compassion, and kindness, and mercy and grace. The one who healed the Gerasene man can and will heal us, too, and he tells us that when we think about who we really are, and whatever else our real, true name is, the most important part of that name will always be Beloved Child of God.

Amen.

Prayer

So I’m lying here in bed, feeling lousy – after two and a half years, I finally came down with Covid – and for whatever reason, I’m thinking about prayer.

People have many different thoughts about prayer. Of course, non-theists believe that prayer is a benign but wasted effort; an attempted conversation with a nonexistent sky-entity. As clergy, I’m coming at the issue from a decidedly theistic viewpoint. Even among us theists, there is still a wide range of belief about prayer – what kind of prayer is appropriate, how it should be done, etc. Certainly, there are different types of prayer, ranging from individual to more formal, structured communal prayers, each type having its own particular contours and vocabulary.

I hear many prayers offered in a large or small group setting, and even while different types of prayer call for a different delivery, it often seems to me that the pray-er is trying hard – too hard – to impress God and their listeners with their own intellect. There almost seems to be a competition for coming up with increasingly lofty, lengthy descriptors of God that often, to me, veers into absurdity. Personally, I’ve never really been impressed by that kind of prayer at all. On the contrary, even if it begins with noble intention – and I grant that it does – I see it as ultimately becoming an act of self-absorption that completely diverts attention away from God and toward the self, and it detracts from the actual purpose of the prayer, and my own ability to become part of it.

I remember a number of years ago when I was first studying to enter the ministry. I’d just had a class where the instructor offered us all a handout – small font, two columns- that was a long list of different possible ways to address God in our prayers. Shortly after that, I was going through some family crisis and wanted to pray about it. Thinking about my training, though, I carefully thought out the precise wording of how to invoke God and how to frame my prayer. After a minute or two of doing that, I bowed my head, and I swear to you, as real as I’m feeling my fingers typing this right now, I immediately heard laughter, and the voice of God teasingly but lovingly asked “Now was all that really necessary?”

Clearly it wasn’t. In reality, God is always present; always in my midst. God knows perfectly well what’s going on in my life, better than I understand it myself, and without my need to find some wonderful, creative words to use almost as a Hogwarts magical incantation to summon God so I can explain what’s going on.

I’ll never forget that experience, and it’s shaped the way I pray ever since, far more than that well-intentioned but bloviating instructor with the long list has. My individual one-on-one conversations with God are sometimes a structured prayer, but much more often are more like an ongoing, always-open conversation, with no need for a formal salutation, body, and closing, the way people my age were taught to write letters in the third grade. Those prayers just flow. The channel is always open, as it were, and I can resume that conversation at any time without preface. The vocabulary and style of those prayers are exactly the same as a casual conversation I might have with you if we were standing in my kitchen. And the prayers are no less appropriate, or efficacious, or meaningful – no less holy – because of it.

That “divine laughter” experience has also had a lasting influence on the language and feel of my liturgical prayer. Prayer can be formal and structured without becoming pompous and self-aggrandizing, and I carefully, intentionally guard against any language that might draw more attention to my own creativity than it does to God. There are many appropriate venues to showcase whatever intellect or creativity a person might have. While I respect that others may feel differently, to me, this just isn’t one of them.

As I think back, the most meaningful and powerful moments of prayer that I’ve experienced – whether individual, in a small group, or in a more formal liturgical setting; and whether offered by myself or others – have always tended to be the simplest, most unassuming, the most un-selfconscious of prayers. Their power derived from their emotional openness, their sincerity, and the presence of the Spirit in those moments, not from an advanced Flesh-Kincaide Grade Level of their vocabulary.

Maybe my thoughts about this are grounded in the more austere, idolatraphobic attitudes of the Reformed tradition. I’m sure that no small amount of it is based in my own basic cut-to-the-chase personality type. In any case, God is far more aware of who and what they are than we ever could be, or than we could ever describe. Language is utterly incapable of capturing God’s reality, so while we do have to address God in some way, inadequate though it will always be, I suspect the simpler the better, not just in how we address God but how we put voice to the prayer in its entirety. The more elaborate we get, the more we’re puffing ourselves up instead of honoring God. I’m convinced that God is perfectly satisfied with – even prefers – a prayer that begins as simply as

Loving God,

Merciful God,

Gracious God,

Creator God,

Eternal God,

Almighty God,

Holy One,

God.

So Now What

(sermon 5/29/22)

So Now What?
(sermon 5/29/22)

John 17:20-26

”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

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Acts 16:16-34

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

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Revelation 22:12-14, 16-21  

“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

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I’ve been pastoring and preaching for 15 years now, and in that time, I’ve never repeated a single sermon. I’ve repeated a detail or a story, but never a whole sermon. But I have repeated a few sermon titles. I actually have a collection of a number of sermons, including this one, titled “So Now What?”; and a number of other, similar ones titled “Enough.” Each of them had to do with some big crisis that had just happened in our society, and if I recall correctly, all but one of them came in the wake of a mass shooting. They were all attempts to speak to our grief, our pain, our frustration, our desire for change, and the hope that these kinds of tragedies would never happen again even though we knew that they would. They were all a meditation on how we, as a society, and particularly as the church, as people of faith, should move forward after the tragedy that was. And now, here we are again, asking the same question – So now what?

I am so tired of these kinds of Sundays, and the need for these kinds of sermons, trying to channel and speak into this kind of communal pain and grief and anger and loss. I’m just tired of it all. I’m fed up with it. Since I last preached in this pulpit, we’ve had a mass murder in Buffalo – gun violence perpetrated by a man who hated black people and was on a mission to kill as many of them as he could. And another mass murder in a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods, California –  gun violence perpetrated by a man who murdered as many of these worshipers as he could because he hated Taiwanese people. And of course, this week, the mass murder of schoolchildren and teachers in Uvalde, Texas, gun violence perpetrated by an eighteen year old for who knows, or frankly, who really even cares what his supposed reasons were.

These incidents of using firearms to inflict mass murder and domestic terrorism have become so common, so frequent, that we’ve reached the point where someone will ask “Did you hear about the mass shooting?” and our response won’t be “Oh my gosh, that’s awful!”; but instead we’ll ask “Which one?” They happen with such regularity that we don’t even have time to learn about all the victims of one before they get bumped out of the news cycle by the next one.

And every time it happens, the same old arguments get trotted out. Some fool will get on television and piously say “This isn’t us; we’re better than this;” when the blood-drenched evidence, when the reality, is abundantly clear that as a society, this is *precisely* us – we are *not* “better than this,” because we continue to do nothing – *nothing* – to stop it, we continue to allow this kind of insanity to continue. And some other horrible talking head will get on television and put on a somber face for a moment and offer their “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families – and in the next breath either imply, and sometimes say outright, that as tragic as it is, it’s just the price we have to pay for our supposed freedom. They’ll offer up other causes for the tragedy, *any* cause other than the gun in the murderer’s hand. And that talking head on the television will say that even while we mourn those deaths, we have to cling, we have to claim, to demand, our supposed unconditional right to own a weapon that has no reasonable purpose in society and that leaves its victims identifiable only through DNA testing; and it violates my rights to ban certain types of firearms, or to restrict them, or to require across the board background checks and red-flag laws and psychological screening and training, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah; just stop. Stop. It’s all nonsense, and I’m done pretending that those arguments are some kind of reasoned debate. They aren’t. To be blunt, any supposed right that comes at such a horrible cost, that requires so much suffering, so much death, is a right that I don’t want and we don’t need.

What’s worse is that I see people of faith on television and online making these same arguments – that this kind of death toll is unfortunate, and they pray for the victims, but it’s necessary to preserve our supposed rights. *People of faith*, making that argument. They want to add on, like barnacles latching onto the bottom of a boat, all kinds of personal prejudices and tradition and self-interest, and take away much of the Christ’s actual teaching found in the scriptures, to create something almost unrecognizable to the gospel he proclaimed.

When I hear them twisting themselves into pretzels to square their opinions with the clear, unambiguous teachings of Christ, and the precepts of the kingdom of God that we love one another and that we always protect “the least of these,” I can only think of Isaiah 1:15, where God is speaking and says,

 “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers I will not listen,
your hands are full of blood.”

The NRA has blood on their hands. The gun manufacturers have blood on their hands. The politicians they’ve bought and paid for outright who allow this situation to go on have blood on their hands.

And we, the church, have a moral obligation to call out the gun lobby’s immoral nonsense – to take a stand against gun violence and the current unacceptable state of access to guns in our society.

The gun lobby will criticize the church when they call for change, for supposedly acting inappropriately and “being political.” But the truth is this is a moral issue first, before it’s anything else. The gun lobby and the politicians they’ve purchased have politicized this moral issue, so they don’t then get to criticize the church for “being political” when we address it.

Throughout this season of Easter, this being the seventh and final Sunday in Easter, the Lectionary has a slightly different format. During this season, the Old Testament reading has been replaced with a reading from Acts, that paired with the gospel text, answers for us as individuals and as the church, the question “So now what?” After the resurrection, what does it all mean? Given the reality of the resurrection, how then are we to live? How should the church be present in the world? What should it stand for and work to support, and what should it stand against and work to oppose?

Placing this week’s Lectionary texts together, we see Jesus saying that as we, his followers, move beyond the resurrection, we have the assurance that we dwell in God, and God dwells in us. Our real safety, our real security, our real peace, is in that relationship. And that indwelling relationship calls us, expects from us, a radical way of loving, the kind of sacrificial love modeled by Christ himself, a way taught in the Sermon on the Mount, which, for us, takes precedence over the Second Amendment. In today’s gospel text, Jesus says that the world should understand that we’re his followers by the love and compassion that we show others, and I’m pretty certain that loving those others would certainly include not demanding rights for ourselves that get them killed.

Jesus told his followers to lay down their weapons in the Garden of Gethsemane, even as they were wielding them in self-defense against an oppressive, occupying government. Paul and Silas modeled the same behavior. In the story we heard in Acts, Paul and Silas were jailed for casting a spirit out of a slave woman. Her owners were profiting, making money off of her gift of prophecy caused by that spirit, and when Paul exorcised her, the slave owners lost money. Modeling Christ’s priorities and teaching, they stood up to those who would allow suffering on the part of others in the name of profit, and that’s what got Paul and Silas arrested. And when it happened, just as Jesus modeled in Gethsemane, they didn’t resort to weapons and violence to defend themselves from that same oppressive government and to protect themselves.

These texts show us that as people of Christ, we have no need for the fear that causes us to want to take our security out of God’s hands and place it into our own. We have no right, as people of the kingdom of God, to demand access to the kind of weaponry that inseparably comes along with this horrific price borne by so many others. Our possessing those kinds of guns is quite possibly not a right and a blessing to our society, but rather, a judgment and a curse – for caring more about an unconditional right to bear arms, than we do about people who bear the image of God.

As people living beyond Easter, beyond the resurrection, we’re called to live the way Christ has taught us. We’re called to offer our heartfelt prayers for those affected by these tragedies, and to pray that they never happen again, and we do offer those prayers. But that isn’t enough by itself. We’re called to do everything in our power, whether it’s sending letters or emails, or standing up in town hall meetings, or yes, even filling the streets in protest, demanding better from our politicians, to break the stronghold that the gun lobby has, preventing the overwhelming will of the people for common-sense gun regulation – and if they won’t do it, to elect replacement who will. It’s the right thing for us to do as people who profess faith in the Prince of Peace, and it’s the right thing to do just as a decent human being. That’s what the church needs to do. That’s what we all need to do, and we need to do it now. Because no pastor should ever have to step into the pulpit and deliver another gut-wrenching sermon titled “So Now What?”

Amen.

In Water, Life

(sermon 3/20/22)

John 4:5-10, 25-30

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

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My grandfather, Tom Lee, was a beer drinker. I mean, he drank a *lot* of beer. He wasn’t a beer snob; he didn’t seek out the newest, coolest microbreweries; I doubt that he could have told you the difference between a porter, a stout, and an IPA. He just drank beer – Budweiser, mostly, and usually out of a can; and it wasn’t at all uncommon for the empty cans to get cut open and used to patch a hole in the floorboard of his old car, or a leaky roof, or put to some other good use. Even though his whistle was wet, he had an incredibly dry sense of humor, and with a perfectly straight face – at least, at first – whenever an Anheuser-Busch commercial would come on television, showcasing their famous team of Clydesdale horses, , he’d tell us kids that one of the  Clydesdales was actually his – meaning, even if we didn’t immediately get it, that he’d bought enough of their beer to pay for one of them. “There; that one right there on the left; that one’s mine,” he’d say, with a sparkle in his eye and as a smile gradually crept over his face.

Even at that time, Anheuser-Busch recognized that they needed to market themselves with more than just Clydesdales and wagons, and so they also had a long-running ad campaign that used the slogan “Where There’s Life, There’s Bud” – meaning, directly, that wherever anyone was doing anything fun or exciting or important, you’d find their beer; and not-so-subtlely implying the reverse – that where there’s Bud, there’s life – that if you just drank their mediocre beer, everyone would find you more attractive and intelligent and interesting, your boss would give you a raise, and all your dreams would come true. Well, with apologies to Budweiser and their ad agency, I think they got their marketing wrong. Clearly, if you’re looking for life, at least a real, authentic, abundant life, you aren’t going to find it in Budweiser – but you’re actually going to find it in water.

Water. Seventy percent of the earth is water. Sixty percent of you and I are, too. When scientists probe the universe looking for environments that could possibly support life, almost the first thing they look for is evidence of water. Water is, maybe even more than food, the most immediate requirement for life to exist at all. This week during Lent, in “A Time to Grow,” Kara Eidson reminds us of the importance of a steady supply of clean, safe water is to our food supply, and in general.

Even beyond our daily needs for clean water, we human beings seem to have always understood water in a deeper, metaphysical, spiritual sense, too. Because of that, water plays an important role in the rituals of most if not all of the world’s major religions. We instinctively seem to understand the symbolic and sacred nature embedded in water, thirst, growth, fulfillment. For us Christians, of course, water has a literal sacramental aspect, with the water of the baptismal font pointing to the greater, holy mystery of God’s claiming us, making covenant with us, and symbolically “cleansing” us from any flaws or shortcomings that would alienate us from God. Of course, our baptism is a ritual that’s just a retooling of the much older Jewish practice of ritual, spiritual cleansing through the waters of bathing in a special pool, the mikvah.

There’s just something about water that’s able to speak, to convey symbolism and meaning across generations, across cultures, in ways that words struggle to keep up with. Depending on the moment, water can represent the terrifying, unknown dangers of the deep that threaten to drown Noah’s family, or Pharoah’s army, or frankly, us in times of our own distress. In nearly the same breath, water can also be the very thing that protects and saves us.

In our own history, water has also sometimes become a shameful past – being a demarcation point during our Jim Crow past, in the form of racially segregated drinking fountains and swimming pools. In some cases, public swimming pools were drained if a black person had gone into it. Others closed permanently just to avoid mandatory racial integration. All this was justified by idiotic claims that “Well they’re just unsanitary; they just carry different diseases than we do;” and “You know, they have different muscle structure than we do, so they aren’t very good swimmers anyway;” two arguments that I heard in my very northern setting about the same time my grandfather was joking about Clydesdales. The late 1960s was a time when ugly, full-bore segregation was still rampant.

With that as a backdrop, Mister Rogers reclaimed the powerful, positive meaning and symbolism of water. Francois Clemmons was a black man, a very talented opera singer, who also took on the acting job of portraying Officer Clemmons, the police officer who patrolled Mister Rogers’ television “neighborhood.” And on one of his shows in early May of 1969, he invited Officer Clemmons to join him in cooling his feet in a wading pool, in the scene we more or less recreated here this morning. He drew on the imagery of water’s ability to refresh, renew, unite, and restore, recognizing the literally life-giving and life-affirming nature that it has for all of us. When he filmed that scene, he caused an uproar that prompted a number of television stations to refuse to air a program that had the audacity to show a white man and a black man sharing a wading pool and a common towel. In his own calm, peaceful, non-threatening way, the Rev. Fred Rogers used a few moments of television, an act of kindness, and the unifying nature of water to blast a hole in the walls of racial discrimination.

It does need to be pointed out that while this scene was powerful, it was also incomplete. Because in addition to being black, Francois Clemmons was also gay. Mister Rogers’ wading pool episode aired just a month before the Stonewall Uprising in New York in June of 1969. Since the end of World War 2, gay men were being jailed, lobotomized, thrown out of their jobs and homes and churches, and literally having their lives destroyed. Clemmons wanted to take a stand against it, and he told Mister Rogers that he wanted to come out as gay on the show, and to make a similar powerful statement regarding sexual orientation. But in that instance, Mister Rogers said no. He felt that at that time, it would have been a bridge too far; it would have resulted in Clemmons being fired, or the entire show being canceled, so he demanded that Clemmons stay in the closet if he wanted to stay on the show and keep his job. Mister Rogers would go on to become a great ally to LGBTQ+ people, but in that moment his decision caused great hurt to Clemmons that took a long time to heal. It’s hard to apply current ideas and understanding to people’s thoughts and actions in the past. Maybe Mister Rogers’ analysis of the situation was right; maybe it wasn’t; we’ll never know. But I’ve sometimes wondered how the fight for gay rights might have played out differently if, just on the eve of Stonewall, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had learned that their very own beloved Officer Clemmons was gay.

Mr. Rogers’ use of water to convey larger truths was just a continuation of a long tradition. The scriptures are full of water allusions, comparisons of God and God’s kingdom to the goodness of water; and our searching for God as a kind of thirst; and that in that kind of water, there is life. We heard Jesus allude to that kind of water in our gospel reading today. Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Amos talked about justice, and his hope for God’s refreshing, restorative justice to roll down like waters – a description that’s immediately recognizable, almost tactile, to any of us who have ever stood under a waterfall on a stream in the woods, or jumped into a swimming pool, or even just played with a garden hose with the kids in the backyard.  

Mister Rogers’ grandfather was named Fred McFeely. I don’t imagine that he was a beer drinker like Tom Lee. But similar to the way my grandfather saw his own grandchildren, Fred McFeely used to tell his grandson that the day was special just because he was part of it; and that God had made him, and loved him, just the way he was. For decades, Mr. Rogers shared that message with millions of children. But at its core, it was really the exact same gospel message of God’s love for us, and acceptance of us, that we hear and receive through the waters of the baptismal font. In water, there’s life – and that should be as welcome and refreshing to us as a tall cold glass of water on a hot summer day.

Thanks be to God.

The Gospel according to Arvide Abernathy

(sermon 3/6/2022)

Luke 4:1-13   

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

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How many of you here are familiar with the musical “Guys and Dolls”? Either the film version or a stage production; it doesn’t matter; how many of you have seen it? So most of you; good. If you’re familiar with it, you know that it’s a double love story – the stories of New York gambler Nathan Detroit and his love, the singer and dancer Miss Adelaide; and another gambler named Skye Masterson, who surprisingly falls in love with Sarah Brown, the very prim and proper head of the local down-and-out faith mission. Recently, a friend of ours told us that he’d been cast in a local production of the musical, in the role of Arvide Abernathy, one of the workers at the mission. The musical was being staged at a local venue just around the corner from our place, and I’m embarrassed to say that in all the years it’s been around, which is… well, longer than I’ve been alive; we’ll just leave it at that –  I’d never seen it, neither the movie or a live production of it, so this past Friday evening we went to see it, and it was really very good.  

If you’re familiar with the musical, you know there are several memorable songs that came out of it – Certainly “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” – and I know that if you’re at least my age or older, you just heard Frank Sinatra singing in your head. And there was another one near the end, sung by the character Nicely Nicely Johnson, in a scene where all the gamblers have gotten shanghaied into attending a midnight prayer meeting at the mission. In the scene, some of the gamblers are offering their testimony, and Nicely Nicely Johnson does his in song – it’s a musical, after all – singing “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat.” I won’t repeat all the lyrics here, but the gist of it is that he’s dreaming that he’s on a boat headed for heaven, but he keeps being tempted – first, somehow he ends up with a pair of dice and he wants to gamble, then somehow a bottle of alcohol appears in his hands and he wants to drink it, and all the other people yell at him, telling him that he’s rocking the boat, causing trouble, making waves; things that are risking them all getting to heaven, and the rest of the passengers keep calling out to him “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat!”

Don’t rock the boat. Go along to get along. Go with the flow. How many times have you heard that? How many times have you said it? How many times have you been told it? The idea that things generally go easier, and supposedly better, if you just do things according to the rules; according to the normal patterns; or as we Presbyterians always say, doing things “decently and in order.”

Of course, there are times when things aren’t right, and we actually need to – we’re expected, called, even, to be boat-rockers, pot-stirrers. Where those regular patterns are creating pain, suffering, violence, injustice, death; we need to go against that grain, break those rules. But under most circumstances, we can sense that there is some inherent order to things, a natural rhythm and flow to things that if you follow it, things are going to proceed better, and end up better, and that if you resist or ignore that pattern, you do so at your own risk. Things are going to be much more difficult; things are going to turn out worse for you, and probably for those around you.

In a sense, this is actually what’s at the core of our gospel reading today, the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the Wilderness. The temptations that Jesus faced weren’t the ones that Nicely Nicely Johnson faced in his dream. Jesus faced temptations were simultaneously more basic and more important – the temptation to stray from God’s order – to sin – in order to obtain basic sustenance, all the way up to the temptation to sin for vast power. In considering this passage, Satan continually increases the scope of things that Jesus is tempted to accept, starting small, with just getting some bread, and then ramping all the way up to having all the power of all the kingdoms of the world. In one sense that smaller-to-larger pattern makes sense. Satan fails when he tempts Jesus with something small, and when that doesn’t work he ups the ante. But you can look at the temptation  in reverse, too. In that case, the embedded question would be “does obeying God and God’s order of things matter equally across the board? Does it matter less when it comes to lesser things?” I mean, none of us has ever had the kind of power that Jesus was tempted with, it’s really almost incomprehensible, so in a sense maybe it would be easy to resist something you couldn’t even imagine. We’ve gotten along without it. But we all know what it feels like to be hungry, so to bend the rules a little bit if we don’t even have enough bread to fill our bellies – surely, that would be OK, wouldn’t it? God wouldn’t mind if we bent the rules to take care of our basic needs, surely. Well, whatever order we think about this story, we do know that Jesus resisted his temptations. Quoting scripture to Satan, and properly understanding the intent behind it, he successfully avoided sin.

We Christians have spent two thousand years discussing sin, and human beings in general have considered it for a lot longer. What exactly is sin, and what isn’t it? Different people will say different things, but to me, when you boil it all down, it comes down to the idea that sin is anything that draws us away from the order of things that God has established for us, for creation, away from those patterns and rhythms that work for the best for us and for others. Sind isn’t a matter of breaking some item or another on a checklist of do’s and don’t’s set up by a God looking to punish us for something. It’s really just that God wants us to benefit – ultimately to suffer less, not more, by aligning ourselves with these patterns, these ways, this order that simply leads to the kind of abundant life that God wants for us.

Jesus recognizes in the Wilderness that even as much as he’s genuinely tempted by the immediate benefit that he’d enjoy if he gave into them – even though he has to endure some difficulty, discomfort, suffering, in his immediate short term, he’s still better off in the long run if he holds fast to God’s overall pattern of what’s best. He recognizes that sometimes, it isn’t easy to do the right thing. That sometimes, avoiding sin – staying on God’s desired path – results in some short-term cost, some sacrifice, in order to achieve some longer-term good in the universe, the world, in our own lives.

There are any number of different ways that we encounter this reality of the universe. Throughout Lent, we’re looking at the devotional book “A Time to Grow” by Kara Eidson. Each week she considers one aspect of how our food is grown, harvested, and distributed. She looks at the whole way we think about food in our society, and the realities of it, and in the process, we can see parallels between the growth of good, healthy food, and our own spiritual growth. On Ash Wednesday, the theme we considered was “soil.” Today’s theme is “order” and how that comes into play in food production – from mapping out a garden in terms of where to plant certain crops based on the characteristics of the soil, how moist or dry it is, how much sunlight it receives – to the actual order, pattern, and extremes of the changing of the seasons. To the fact that virtually every time we try to short-circuit the established order of producing and eating simple, healthy food, and we replace it with artificial this and chemically enhanced that, filling our guts with the worst kind of drive-through, deep-fried, mega-carb, sugar-bombed, high-calorie, low nutrition substitutes, we know we’re going to pay a heavy price for it. This is just one every day, real-world validation of what we see Jesus doing in today’s gospel text – not giving in to the temptation of the short-term easy fix, but rather, staying the course, even when it’s difficult, keeping aligned with God’s order for things.  

But what’s the whole reason for establishing that kind of order? What’s God’s point in all this? I mean yes, in general things go easier and better for us, and others, if we go with the flow and don’t rock the boat in terms of God’s order for things; and we know that even when it isn’t always easy, sometimes it requires some sacrifice, it’s still all working for the best – but what exactly is that best that God has in mind for us behind it all?

At one point in “Guys and Dolls,” Arvide Abernathy sings a song – it shows up in the stage production; for some reason it got cut from the film, and that was a shame, since I think it’s probably the sweetest, most beautiful song in the entire production – called “More I Could Not Wish for You,” to Sarah Brown. Out of all of his love and admiration for Sarah, he tells her that he wishes so many good things for her in her life – fortune, wealth, material things; people waiting on her hand and foot; music, happiness, and wisdom – but the thing that he wishes most for her is that she would discover her real, true love –  the one who will love her, care for her, the one who would always embrace her in their arms. In a sense, that’s the core message of the gospel. That’s the same thing that’s behind God’s order for things. It’s all designed with the hope, the wish, that we, too, would know and have a good, abundant life, and through that, that we’d recognize that in the greatest sense, the one who loves us, cares for us, protects us in their arms, is God’s very self. That’s what’s at the core of God’s wish for us – that we’d see this order, this pattern, and that we’d understand how important it is that we stay aligned with that divinely established order, that cosmic rhythm, universal pattern just as Jesus did in the Wilderness. If we do that, we’ll experience that more abundant life that God wants for us – an abundance that in another place, the scriptures describe as “full measure, pressed down, and overflowing”  – or maybe, as Miss Adelaide might have said, a Bushel and a Peck.      

Thanks be to God.

(Un)Hidden Figure

(sermon 2/20/22)

Isaiah 45:1-11, 14

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; God has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

“Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’” And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

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Like most all of you, I imagine, over the course of the last two years George and I watched television. A LOT of television. We burned through entire seasons of television shows in days, weeks at the most. During all that, I discovered something about George. He could look at three antique violins made by master violin makers and in a split second he could tell you that this one was a Stradivari, and this one an Amati, and this other one a Guarneri del Jesú; and not only that but in what decade of their careers. But while he can instantly recognize certain details, differences, and patterns, it can sometimes be challenging for him to spot the same actor playing different roles. Give them a beard, or a different hair color, or different glasses, and he often won’t immediately recognize it’s actually the same person we’d seen in a different show the week before. When that happens, sometimes I’ll tease him about it; that that’s one of the areas where his superpower fails him, and he’ll just laugh and say “Ah, you Caucasians; you all look alike.”

Generally though, if it’s someone we know well, we’re able to recognize their faces across time, even when it’s been decades since we’d seen them. The hair recedes, or turns white, or even disappears, and wrinkles soften and modify our faces, but still, the basic details of someone’s face is usually still very recognizable.

This comes into play in today’s First Reading, the part of the story of the life of Joseph where his brothers travel from Canaan to Egypt during a famine, to try to obtain food for their family. And when they arrive at Pharoah’s court, lo and behold, they’re received by the brother they’d beaten up and sold into slavery years before. This story unfolds over several chapters of Genesis but it’s here where Joseph can’t hold back any longer, and he reveals his true identity to his brothers.

The story is written in such a way that states, or at least very strongly implies that the brothers don’t recognize Joseph until he reveals himself to them, although as all the interaction unfolds between him and them they’re reminded of what they’d done to him all those years ago, thinking that the harsh treatment he’d been giving them was maybe a bit of karma for their past actions. But reading through the story in its entirety again this past week, and recognizing that it’s hard to truly forget the face of someone we knew and loved, probably even more so when something traumatic has happened between the two of you, I wonder if that’s exactly how the story would have really played out. Reading it again, I sense a bit of ambiguity in the story, where there’s enough wiggle room in the words to imagine that maybe it was a little different than the way we usually think about the story. I think it’s very possible that the brothers recognized Joseph immediately, or almost immediately, as soon as they met – and that throughout their interaction, they were upset and terrified. In the whole story, there’s a word that shows up several times describing the brothers’ emotions that’s just translated as “dismayed,” and I think that puts it mildly and politely. “Dismayed” just sounds like “disappointed,” when this word actually is meant to capture a much broader a range of emotion, including anxiety, fear, uncertainty, dread – something similar to the emotions that a Southern Baptist would feel if they saw another Southern Baptist in the liquor store. So were the brothers just carefully playing along, only giving details about their family with little detail and no names only after being forced to under Joseph’s questioning, and just hoping to escape unrecognized with some grain and their skin intact?

I mean, think about it – could you forget the face of your own sibling even if twenty or even thirty years had passed; even if they were in a different setting, a different surrounding, with different hair, clothing, probably even makeup as an official in Pharoah’s court would likely wear? Wouldn’t you still recognize your own brother or sister?

On the other hand, maybe they really didn’t recognize him. Maybe Joseph had been so assimilated into the dominant culture that surrounded him, maybe he pushed down and hid so much of his own true self in order to fit into those surroundings, that his real identity, his real self, just couldn’t even be seen and recognized, even by people who knew him well, even by his own family. If that’s the case, I feel sorry for everyone in this story. I wonder what all they lost in their lives – both Joseph, who seemingly had lost his family, his friends, his home, and had to make a different life for himself, adopting other ways just in order to survive. What a soul-crushing experience it is to be deprived of being your authentic self, to bury yourself as tightly as if you truly were dead, and in some ways, maybe parts of you are. And certainly also the loss endured by his family, by Jacob and the brothers, and all the rest of his family and friends, whose lives were all diminished by having lost being together with Joseph through all of life’s experiences through those years.

But maybe most of all in this story, I hold up Joseph’s words to his brothers when he does come out to them, whether they’d already figured it out for themselves or not, when he tells them “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life;” and telling them that it was God, not really them, who had put this whole thing into motion just to get Joseph to Egypt and to be in a position to help them all these years later.

That gives me pause. Honestly, I struggle with this idea, that God endorses, plans, participates in causing violence, pain, suffering of people, supposedly for some greater good, whether their own, or some larger, greater good. It’s an important thing that we all have to consider in our own lives of faith. When bad things happen to us, is God inflicting them on us? Are we meant to humbly accept that God is just more powerful than us, and more knowledgeable than us, and we’re just such small cogs in the universe that our own pain isn’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things? That our own lives, our own suffering, is as consequential to God as an ant’s might be to us? That when we suffer, we’re just supposed to accept it as God’s will and consider it some kind of hidden, and really perverse, blessing?

I can’t believe that way. It’s been said that when thinking about God, and the attributes of all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, you can have any two of these but not three. I don’t like the idea of trying to limit what God’s nature might be to human understanding, but I do think there’s some truth to this. And over time, I’ve come to think that I do need to choose just two of those three options, and I think the totality of the scriptures, at least to my own personal reading, as well as my own experience, leans more toward an all-loving God foremost, and then an all-knowing one, and that there are some things that are just outside of God’s power, even if still part of God’s authority and responsibility. Aquinas might need God to be omnipotent in order to truly be God, but I don’t.

Given all that, I don’t believe that God acts in ways that harm us, or puts things in motion that cause anyone violence or harm, even for some supposed greater good. And neither do I believe that God *could* save us from suffering, but sort of passively *allows* us to suffer for some purpose known only to God. I actually think that’s monstrous theology. But I do believe that once something happens, either through human action of simple natural forces, God will essentially look at the situation and say “Now what good can I achieve with that? What’s the best that I can make of this situation?”

I think we all have to find some resolution to this question – does God throw pain, suffering, violence, sickness, and so on at us – does God actively put these in our lives? Or does God actually have the power, the ability, to prevent them from happening, but doesn’t; and if so, why don’t they; or why does God save one person from experiencing pain and suffering, but seemingly ignore the suffering of others? Or is that something that ultimately, even God can’t do, but at least, God promises to be with us, and to never leave us abandoned or alone or unloved as we endure that suffering that even God is unable to keep us from?

That’s what I believe. That our suffering is not from God, and that God is powerless, unable, to shield us from it, but God still embraces us and preserves us throughout it all, and promises to work something good, the best possible, through it, even in spite of it. That’s the God that I believe in. A God that was any other way would be a God whose face I just wouldn’t recognize.

Thanks be to God.

All Bartimaeus

(sermon 10/24/21)

Mark 10:46-52

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

He sat there along the side of the road that day just as he did most days, calling out to people as they traveled from there in Jericho to Jerusalem, or from Jerusalem to Jericho and beyond. There was a bit of irony in his situation. He was Bartimaeus – Bar-Timaeus, literally, “son of Timaeus,” his father’s name, which was a variation of a word combining concepts of worth, value, wealth, inheritance; and here he was – broke, considered worthless, cast aside, presumably being punished by God with blindness for some sinfulness in his life, relegated to begging for spare change from people as they passed by just in order to survive, but most days getting more scorn than shekels as most of them tried to ignore him as awkwardly and unsuccessfully as when we might try to ignore the panhandler waving at us while we’re stopped at a red light.

Some days were better for business, as it were, than others. This was one of the better days, as traffic had picked up on the road as large numbers of people were flooding into Jerusalem to observe the Passover. On this particular day the numbers seemed even a little bigger, and based on the conversations he was overhearing it was because Jesus, the itinerant rabbi was passing through town on his way to Jerusalem and a large crowd was following him independent of the Passover festival.

Bartimaeus apparently knew a bit about Jesus – that he was wise, insightful, maybe sometimes even annoyingly so; and having an ability to heal the lame and the sick. Some were even saying that he was the long-awaited messiah. For his own part, Bartimaeus may or may not have thought Jesus was the messiah as he sat there along the dusty road, but at very least he believed that Jesus was able to heal his blindness, and in the process, exorcising several of the social demons, if not literal ones, that were plaguing him. So when Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was near, he began to call out to him for help. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

It was a cry that could have been a reference to Jesus being the messiah; or, it could have been an association of Jesus with Solomon, the literal “son of David” who was widely believed to not only be wise, but also to have been able to heal the sick and cast out demons. Either way, Bartimaeus’ bases were covered, and the double meaning of that term might have pleased him.

As he was calling out, we heard that the people in the crowd told him to be quiet, he was being a bother, annoying; with all of Bartimaeus’ yelling and wailing, they could barely hear what Jesus was saying as he was walking and talking. It was just rude of him to be so disruptive.

But Bartimaeus didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, this was his moment; maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so he just kept yelling and crying out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” On that day, Bartimaeus had the unenviable but real freedom of having nothing left to lose by upsetting the polite civility and conventions around him in order to be heard, and to maybe cause some improvement to his lot in life.

When the people told him that Jesus had heard him and was calling him over, the text says that he jumped up and cast off his… well, something, we’re not totally sure what, because the Greek word used here in the text is ambiguous. It could mean just his outer garment, or it could mean all of his clothing in their entirety; and while the story would still work with either meaning, maybe it would be even more profound, more powerful. if Mark meant the latter. Bartimaeus coming forward to encounter Jesus, naked, completely open and honest, without pretense or cover or camouflage; just as I am without one plea, son of David, have mercy on me.

And in doing what he did, the supposedly sinful and punished Bartimaeus was just one in a long line of people who had exercised that same hard-earned freedom. Job did it before him, as we’ve been hearing in our First Readings the past several weeks. And long after, the supposedly sinful Protestant Reformers did the same, and long after them, supposedly sinful blacks and supposedly sinful women, and supposedly sinful LGBTQ folk, all of them cast off convention and false civility, refusing to be silenced, seeking confirmation of God’s blessing as equal children of God, and seeking betterment of their place in society.

So there stood Bartimaeus, in front of Jesus, waiting. Jesus looked at him, eyes intent, and simply asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus told him. I want to see. He may not have known whether Jesus was the messiah, or just what being a messiah might actually entail; he didn’t understand anything about the fine points of Trinitarian theology or the dual nature of Jesus’ being; he certainly didn’t know anything remotely like any kind of Christian atonement theory. All he knew was that he believed Jesus could help him, in a way that maybe no one else could.

That probably wouldn’t be a sufficiently well-developed statement of faith to get him membership in a lot of churches, maybe most churches, but according to Jesus, it was enough. It was faith sufficient to receive what he’d asked for, and more. He received his sight, yes, but he actually received so much more. He’d been made well, in the deepest sense of the word. In fact, what Jesus actually says here is that Bartimaeus’ faith, his trust, had rescued him, liberated him, healed him – had saved him.

In short, what Jesus did was to make him aware that in fact, he was truly “Bar-Timaeus” – son of value, of worth, of inheritance.

In some way or another, maybe even multiple ways, we’ve all found ourselves sitting in the dust along the roadside of life as all the rest of the world, intentionally or unintentionally, ignores our suffering, our deepest need, however we define that. Maybe they’ll feel sorry for us, maybe some of them will blame us as the cause of our own suffering, but most of them probably just oblivious to us as they go on, wrapped up in their own lives, priorities, destinations. Yes, more than half of us find ourselves in some category of humanity that’s historically had to reject polite rules of engagement, as Bartimaeus did, in order for our voices to be heard and for any real progress to be made. But even if you aren’t in one or another of of those groups, you can still end up sitting in the dust of the roadside, too. The world just keeps going while you struggle with the death of a spouse, a parent, a child. You deal with the stresses of caring for a family member who has special needs, maybe with little or no help from others. Or you deal with uncertain finances, discord in family relationships, or health problems of your own. So many things can put you, put us, in places of suffering as profound as Bartimaeus’. Son of David, have mercy on me.

Frankly, hearing stories like Bartimaeus’ can lead us to consider some really disturbing things: why are other people’s prayers answered but not mine? Does God care more about them than about me? Is God punishing me for something, or rewarding them for something? Does God care about me at all? What was so special about Bartimaeus? Because there were thousands of sick, lame, blind, who Jesus walked past day after day and didn’t heal, and there are countless people who suffer today while others don’t. Truly, Bartimaeus received a gift that very few people do.

But we do have something that Bartimaeus didn’t. He had to wait for Jesus to come along to hear him and save him. We don’t. We don’t have to sit and wait for Jesus to come walking by some day and maybe hear our suffering. For us, Jesus is always with us, when we’re walking down the road, and especially when we’re in the dust alongside it. So with faith – imperfect, sometimes with questions, sometimes doubting, sometimes not fully understanding, but still faith – we still call out to God with our deepest longings, just as Bartimaeus did. And we do still have the great gospel truth that even if we do have to endure suffering, or problems, or neglect, or injustice, or scorn, then God will endure it all along with us. God hears us, loves us, accepts us, even when no one else does. Just as he did with Bartimaeus, Jesus has truly rescued us, liberated us, healed us, saved us. He has literally made us all Bartimaeus – sons of value, daughters of worth, children of inheritance; today, tomorrow, and forever.

Thanks be to God.

And the Votes Are In…

(sermon 10/17/21)

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

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This past week, I saw that LEO Weekly came out with their “Readers’ Choice Awards,” their annual Best of Louisville roundup where readers vote for their favorite choice in a long list of categories – Best Movie Theater, Best Farmers’ Market, Best Chocolate Shop, and so on. As I looked through the listings, I agreed with a lot of the winners. Keeping away from categories that people might consider politically partisan, or the even more contentious categories like Best Place for Pizza, and just looking at some of the creative categories, I was delighted to see three incredibly talented people get top honors on the list: Jon Cherry for Best Photographer, Kyle Gordon for Best Videographer, and Hannah Drake for Best Local Writer. There were some other choices that I disagreed with, too. I suppose it’s possible that some of those disagreements were just a result of my particular age – I’d have likely voted differently for Best Local Radio Station than most 20 year-olds, for example. And I know that with each trip around the sun that you make, the relevance of certain categories changes. I mean, even if the answers varied, people of any age would have an opinion on the Best Place for a Romantic Dinner, but over time, the odds are that you might be less interested in categories like Best Body Piercing, Best Head Shop, and Best Twitter Feed, and more interested in seeing categories like Best Urologist, Best Orthopedic Surgeon, and Best Place to Buy Sensible Shoes. I’m not entirely there yet, but still, I’m just sayin’…

The LEO list does identify some of the best in our city; people, places, and events that help to make our city great and that really deserve recognition and the glory of being name to the list. But it is a bit subjective, of course, and it will always be more a popularity poll than any kind of scientific, objective determination of the “best of” some particular thing. So while it would definitely be fun to have year-long bragging rights if Springdale Presbyterian was voted Best Place to Worship – we weren’t – I’m not exactly going to lie awake at nights worrying about it.

It’s also definitely true that lists like this one can be subject to distortion by vote-casting campaigns, lobbying efforts on the part of some in order to beat out their competition and get top billing in their particular category.

As we heard today’s gospel text, we were peeking in on a similar kind of lobbying attempt to gain a place of honor and glory. Admittedly, in the case of the apostles James and John asking to be seated at Jesus’ right hand and left hand when Jesus had come into his glory – basically, being named Best Apostles – the stakes were a lot more serious than getting named in the LEO list, but there’s a similar human emotion and motivation involved. We heard that the other ten apostles took a dim view of the brothers’ efforts, and for the most part, biblical commentators and two thousand years’ worth of preachers have, too. It was presumptuous, self-serving, and frankly, just plain tacky. I’ve preached this text that way multiple times in the past, and I probably will again in the future. This time around, though, as I let their words dwell and simmer in my brain, I heard them with a slight bit more grace.

As Mark points out in his lead-in by reminding us of James and John’s father, Zebedee, these two bothers have given up a lot to be there on the road with Jesus that day – family, friends, community, business, a steady income and social respectability – all to follow Jesus, the homeless, wandering preacher and maybe-messiah, relying on charity to survive and undoubtedly being looked down upon by more polite society for it. Keeping that in mind, and granting that their request was self-serving, I can still imagine that at its core was something much more respectable and valid – the basic, existential human need that we all have to know that our efforts, our sacrifices made in order to do what we think is right, was ultimately worth it – put another way, the deep existential need to know that our lives actually mattered.  

Maybe it was with that more palatable way of understanding the brothers’ request that Jesus offered them his answer – that paired along with the need for a childlike nature that we heard about a couple of weeks ago, to be truly great in God’s estimation, in God’s realm, a person needs to be a servant to all. To have a servant’s heart, and not in a grudging or transactional sense, as if we were trying to buy their way into heaven, but rather, recognizing that we’ve already been redeemed; that we and God have already been reconciled. And recognizing the depths to which Christ became a servant to all, we’re grateful, and with God’s help, now we can, and need to, reflect and offer that same servant nature to others, by offering them love and compassion and acceptance and assistance. Jesus didn’t put it quite this way, but maybe we could say that exhibiting that servant nature is the best evidence possible that a person has really, truly grasped the core truth of the gospel, and *that’s* what makes them great, and worthy or real glory, in God’s eyes.

In our Presbyterian tradition, our form of governance and leadership rests on this exact principle. We have a carefully thought-out balance of sharing congregational leadership responsibilities. Certain duties are reserved for the pastor, a Minister of Word and Sacrament, also sometimes known as a Teaching Elder. Other leadership duties are reserved for the Session, made up of the installed pastor – or pastors, if there are more than one – and  Ruling Elders, who are elected and ordained by the congregation. Being elected a Ruling Elder isn’t a small thing. It isn’t the same as being elected to the Board of some social club or organization. It’s something very serious. A person being asked to consider becoming a Ruling Elder first prayerfully seeks discernment from God whether this kind of leadership is something that God is calling them to; and to consider that the call will require them to share their talents, their time, their imagination. And whether we’re talking about Minsters of Word and Sacrament or Ruling Elders, it isn’t a kind of leadership that “lords it over” people, as Jesus says, and our own Book of Order echoes, but rather, to exhibit what compassionate servant leadership looks like as a spiritual discipline.

We believe that the congregation is an equally important part of this discernment process, to correctly sense God’s will. Voting for someone to be ordained and serve as a Ruling Elder isn’t just a vote of expediency in order to just fill a slot. It’s far more meaningful than being voted to a “Best of” slot on the LEO list. In their vote, the congregation is validating the person’s sense that God may be calling the to this particular kind of servant leadership. It’s community affirmation that they’ve carefully, prayerfully considered the person, and in them, they recognize not only an abiding love of God and a strong, mature Christian faith, but also particular gifts for this kind of leadership of the congregation in ways that keep it on the path that God is leading it on. The vote is confirmation that in this person, the congregation recognizes the servant nature that Jesus talks about.

So as a member of the congregation, recognize that every single one of us who drinks of the same cup as Jesus, and who is baptized in the same baptism as him – every single one of us – is called in some way or another to be a leader, by being a servant to all. To have a servant’s heart, and a servant’s way of living the gospel. As a member of the congregation, when we vote on servant leaders for Session and other positions next month, remember what it really represents. And if you yourself end up being asked to consider becoming a Ruling Elder, and if, as you’re considering it, you wonder and worry if it’s worth the effort – remember this particular gospel text, and that in it, Jesus has already cast his vote that most definitely it is.

Thanks be to God.

A Place at the Table

(sermon 10/11/21)

Photo by Anna Shvets at pexels.com

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Then Job answered: “Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!

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Hebrews 4:12-16  

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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How many of you have heard of Eliphaz the Temanite? Does anyone here know who he was? Anyone? How about a quick show of hands; who here has ever heard of Eliphaz the Temanite?… Right, (almost) no one. Well, Eliphaz was one of the so-called friends of Job, who came to him in his time of intense distress and suffering, and who give Job pretty much universally bad advice and incorrectly tell Job that his suffering is his own fault; that it’s God’s response to something wrong that Job is doing in his own life. For his part, Eliphaz accuses Job of some apparently hidden “great wickedness” in his life, and that he needs to “return” to God by getting his life right.

The passage from Job that we heard today is part of Job’s reply to Eliphaz. Later in his answer, Job points out that the specific accusations that Eliphaz made are untrue. But first, Job offers what we heard today – that yes, he definitely feels estranged from God, and that he would certainly turn to God, but he can’t actually find God. No matter where Job turns, God doesn’t seem anywhere to be found. God seems to have completely abandoned Job, and Job can’t understand why.

The Book of Job is one of the most fascinating, complex, thought-provoking books in the Bible. The issues, the emotions, and the theological questions it raises are things that we’ve all wrestled with in our own lives. As we develop our own personal theologies regarding theodicy – why there’s pain and suffering in a world created and sustained by an all-loving God. About whether God inflicts suffering on us in order to teach us something. Even whether God is the kind of God who would actually be willing to destroy our lives as a game, over a bet with Satan, a bet just as callous and meaningless as the one made by the horrible Duke brothers in the movie “Trading Places.” Beyond those deep theological questions, Job’s suffering, his emotions, simply resonate with us. We feel them in our bones as fellow children of suffering in the universe. We all hear and understand and connect with Job in our own particular ways.

One of those ways is particularly significant today. With National Coming Out Day being tomorrow, I think it can be helpful to consider how Job’s words might be heard by a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer person in our society today. Centuries of anti-gay bigotry and hatred, and most of it being directly and indirectly instilled in people’s minds through the teachings of the Church, have caused damage, suffering, and death to literally millions of people over the last two thousand years, on an overall scale that makes Job’s suffering look like hardly more than a hangnail by comparison.

In 1960, the year that I was born, gay men were considered sinful by the church, criminals by the courts, and mentally ill by the medical profession. We were thrown out of our jobs, out of our homes, out of our churches. We were thrown into jails and mental institutions. We were subjected to high-strength electroshock torture that was euphemistically called therapy, we were lobotomized, and chemically and physically castrated for being gay. A person could murder a gay man and be judged not guilty based on the “gay panic” defense that the gay man had asked his killer out on a date, and it so enraged the man that it made him temporarily insane and not accountable for his actions. Now, in 2021, we know that things are better than they were in 1960, but we also know that there’s still a lot of anti-gay hatred and violence in our society, in our churches, in our neighborhoods and in our families.

That’s why coming out as LGBTQ is still possibly the scariest, and riskiest, of things a person may ever have to do in their lives. Coming out can still cost someone their job, their family, their church; virtually every aspect of their life is suddenly, unpredictably at risk as a result of coming out. And in the midst of it, because of harmful anti-gay teachings from the church, the person often feels as rejected and punished and abandoned by God as Job did in this passage as they wrestle with the emotions surrounding their sexuality and coming out. Make no mistake: even now, with all of our social advances, coming out is still white-knuckle terrifying for most people. And in analyzing the potential losses that could happen, many LGBTQ+ people wait until a later, safer date to come out. Some never do. While that in itself is a tragedy, it’s also sometimes a necessity, and as part of recognizing National Coming Out Day, we need to respect and honor, and commit to protect any person who decides that coming out just isn’t possible for them, at least not right now.

Obviously though, many LGBTQ+ people do still come out, despite the risks, in order to live their true, authentic lives as God created them. And the more that happens, the better it will be for them, and for our society, too. Every year, more and more people discover that they know and love someone who is LGBTQ+, and who has had to go through the agonizing, terrifying process of coming out. It’s a fear that’s been faced by two of your pastors in recent years. At least one of your pastor’s children, and children of staffers. Several of your seminary interns. In fact, let’s have another show of hands: who here today has an LGBTQ+ friend? A child or other family member of a friend?… A member of your own extended family?…. A member of your own immediate family?…. Is there anyone else here today who has come out themselves? Yes, virtually all of us here today are connected, in relationship with, someone who has come out as LGBTQ+.

This morning, as the Church – as one of the primary sources that helped make coming out so difficult and so dangerous, we need to do two things:

First, we need to acknowledge our own role, our complicity in causing harm, often irreparable harm, to so many people, even people close to us. We need to acknowledge that our own past actions have driven people away from God, away from Christ, away from the Church, away from the faith. We’ve acted as the obstacle, the stumbling block that Jesus spoke so harshly about. We need to acknowledge this reality, and apologize for it, and truly repent for it.

That repentance is the second thing that we, the Church, need to do. Repentance means turning away from one thing, and turning toward something else. We need to commit ourselves to work for full LGBTQ+ equality and for equal protection under the law in our society; and to create a church that honors and celebrates sexual and gender diversity as a blessed and good and beautiful part of God’s creation. We need to continually affirm theologies, and doctrines, and scriptural interpretations that affirm that reality, and to strongly, unambiguously reject the ones that don’t.

We need to hear the good news – the gospel – found in today’s reading from Hebrews. That to God, no one is hidden. No one is in the closet. That through Christ, we have someone who understands our fears, our suffering, our temptations, our weaknesses – and who understands that our sexuality isn’t one of those weaknesses, but rather, is one of our greatest gifts.

So to anyone who is LGBTQ+ who might not be out and who might be considering coming out; and who might be struggling with where God, and the Church, and faith, is in the midst of all that, and who may even be feeling abandoned by God, I just say this:

Dear child of God, even in the midst of all that you’re going through – all your fears, all your questions, all the risks and all the possible feelings that God has abandoned you, I promise you – God has never abandoned you, and God never will. God has never left your side. You are known by name and are precious in God’s sight. God does not condemn you or judge you based on your sexuality or gender, and neither will we. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made by God, created in love, to love who you choose, and to be loved by one who chooses you. You have been created in God’s very image, and that includes your sexuality.

And so if it’s time for you, beloved, to come out, then come out. God loves you, we love you, I love you. You have a place in the reign of God, a place in this church, a place at this font and a place at this Table. And if you decide that this isn’t the time to come out, then don’t come out. Stay in the closet. God will be with you there in the closet and will even guard the door. God loves you, we love you, I love you. Because really, truly, all of this – the faith, the church, the universe, humanity, life, God – what it all boils down to is that it’s all about love. And if anyone tells you differently, they’re as wrong as Eliphaz the Temanite.

Thanks be to God.