Here I Stand.3 – A Place at the Table

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Later this week, I’ll be attending Marriage Matters, the annual conference sponsored by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. CovNet is an organization made up of congregations and individual members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) committed to working for full inclusivity for LGBTQ persons within the PC(USA). This includes issues related to their ordination as deacons, ruling elders, or ministers; creating more LGBTQ-welcoming and affirming congregations nationwide; and working for the PC(USA) to revise its Book of Order to change the definition of marriage as being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” Every day, as more and more Christians reach the conclusions that a person’s sexual identity is inherent, and a gift from God – actually, a significant part of their having been created in the imago Dei – and that same-sex marriages are expressions of love every bit as worthy of blessing by God and the Church; and as more and more states are legalizing marriage equality; this becomes a more significant issue for the church. Increasingly, Presbyterian ministers in states where same-sex marriage is legal have to choose either to refuse to officiate at these weddings – often for their own parishioners, friends, and even family members – or, as a matter of freedom of conscience, to break their ordination vow to uphold the requirements of the Book of Order. The way things stand now creates a truly bizarre twist of polity: an ordained minister in the PC(USA) may be openly gay or lesbian. They may be part of a long-term, non-legally recognized same-sex partnership. They may be part of a legal civil union where such unions are legal. They may even be part of a same-sex marriage where they’re legal. But they may not have their marriage officiated by a fellow PC(USA) minister, or held in a Presbyterian church. This makes no sense at all.

My own journey of understanding the issues of LGBTQ inclusivity has been a long one, and one that required a near-seismic shift in my personal theology. I was originally very firmly in the traditionalist camp. Back then, I thought the PC(USA) was moving away from the “true” faith and throwing away the Bible, allowing itself to be poisoned by the whims of the mood of the times. In fact, it was in part through my determined effort to rebut arguments for LGBTQ ordination and marriage equality within the church that I came to realize that those arguments were sound – that they were entirely consistent with our historical understandings of the nature, authority, and interpretive methodologies of the scriptures. I came to realize that for all of these years, the Church had been wrong – and I had been wrong. At the same time as that scriptural study, I came into contact with many gay and lesbian Christians – many of them fellow seminarians, and many of whom I sensed were at least as gifted, if not more so, for the ministry as I am. Through these and a number of other avenues of study, prayer, and personal introspection, I arrived at the theological position that I hold now – that neither being gay, nor acting upon it, are sins. A person’s sexuality is a gift from God, intended in great measure – perhaps the greatest measure – to enable two people to experience and offer love – for that love to help express the love inherent in the very being of the Trinitarian God, in the jointly divine/human nature of Christ, and in the relationship between Christ and us as individuals. Expressing that love within same-sex relationships, if that is a person’s sexual nature, is no sin. To the contrary, to try to repress or obstruct a human being from expressing love in a committed relationship with another is what I view as sinful, and an attempt to obstruct what God intends for them.

As my personal and theological journey progressed, many things happened. Frankly, I lost a number of long-term, good friends. They felt that I was a traitor to the faith, a heretic, an apostate, and clearly unfit for the ministry, of all things. Of course, I also gained new friends, who understood the journey I’d been on and who had been on similar journeys with similar ultimate theological destinations. For a long while after I’d shifted my views, I spent hours and hours explaining to traditionalists how I could believe the way I now did. I wrote literal books’ worth of explanations and arguments. I could, and can, make very lengthy, detailed arguments related to Reformed understandings of the nature of sin and grace, and the nature of scripture and its interpretation. I could, and can, discuss ambiguities in, and likely mistranslations from, the original Greek and Hebrew texts. I could talk about historical context till I’m blue in the face.

But I’ve really almost completely stopped all that. Oh, if someone really wanted to have a true conversation about the issue; if they’re obviously on their own journey of theological discernment the same way I was, I’ll get into all those lengthy discussions. But no more arguing just for argument’s sake. No more simply restating my ground for the umpteenth time in some argument that isn’t going to change anything.

These days, I cut to the chase. I believe that God creates us very good, and in God’s own image, regardless of what our sexual orientation is. Because of that, I don’t believe that either particular sexual orientation, or the physical and emotional expression of that orientation, is sin – rather, oppressing, discriminating against, and excluding people based on sexual orientation is what is sin. I believe that God calls all people, regardless of sexual orientation, to all aspects of life within the church – including all ordained positions and all positions of leadership. This has always been the case, and I believe it’s time for the Church to accept this reality and honor those whom God has so called, by allowing them the space to be open and honest about the fullness of their being, including their sexual orientation. And as part of that, I believe that it’s long past time that the Church recognize the goodness in God’s eyes of same-sex marriages, as a matter of both love and justice. As I encounter more and more LGBTQ people both inside and out of the Church, I’m appalled at how near-universal their stories of oppression, rejection, shunning, and persecution by their home churches are. Over the past two thousand years, the Church has caused irreparable harm to countless millions of LGBTQ people. It’s something that we, the Church will be held accountable for; for which we should truly be ashamed; and for which we should be working aggressively to repent from and to reconcile and make amends wherever and however possible. All of this, I believe, is what is consistent with Christ – God in the flesh – and his teachings.

Thanks be to God, the PC(USA) has already amended its constitution to permit ordination of LGBTQ persons. Now, it needs to become even more welcoming and affirming to all LGBTQ people, those called to ordained positions and otherwise. And it also needs to finally amend its definition of marriage, and to bless same-sex marriages as covenants of love that are seen as good in the eyes of God. In 2012, an overture to redefine marriage as being between “two people” was narrowly defeated at the PC(USA) General Assembly, by a vote of 338-308. I hope that in its next General Assembly in June of 2014, the denomination finally pushes this much-needed correction over the goal line. It’s just the right thing to do. We need to realize that God has a place at the Table for all of us – including our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews; our parents, our grandparents, our aunts and our uncles; and in some cases, even our selves – who have been created by God as LGBTQ, and whom God calls “very good.”

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Out from under the Covers

Since I didn’t have anything hard-scheduled first thing this morning, I went to bed last night without setting the alarm. That allowed me the ability to wake up in that glorious way people are able to do sometimes, just gradually accepting the reality that it’s morning and that at some point they’ll have to get out of bed, but only when they’re good and ready. At least, that’s the way my awakening started. That gauzy bliss came to a screeching halt when the rebooting brain cells hit the sector that recalls that I’m still only half-employed, and I have no idea how I’m going to meet even my basic financial obligations this coming month. Emotionally, this time of day is often very difficult for me; I suspect it’s truly some chemical deficiency that occasionally makes me slip into morning terrors, and that I’d probably benefit from some very small dose of antidepressant to ward them off. On the other hand, I’ve discovered from past experience that with the obligatory burying my head in the covers and crying that I just can’t face another bout of financial insecurity out of the way, once I actually crawl out of the bed and into the shower, the impending pressures seem at least manageable.

Once I did get on with the day, I discovered a few more congregations to forward my information to. I also attended the funeral of a wonderful woman, a beautiful celebration of her life. A good funeral can often extend hope to not just the grieving family, but to anyone facing pressures and struggles in their lives, and that was the case today. Immediately after the funeral, I got a chance to talk with my older daughter on the phone a bit, which always makes me feel good. I got some good news regarding health insurance coverage for at least the next couple of months, and actually made some progress toward possibly getting ordained even before finding the full-time call I’m so desperately seeking. Then, I thought about the good conversation I had with a friend in Toronto via Skype the night before, and about how nice it was to have been able to get together with family a few days ago, even if it was due to a death in the family.

This evening, I sat down to read a little bit more of the book I’m reading now – In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann (Fortress Press, 2004). Moltmann is a great German Reformed theologian, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. His thoughts have greatly influenced my own, and, among other things, he could arguably be considered the father of liberation theology. His books are often difficult, slow reads; I’ll admit that sometimes it could take me half an hour just to really understand what he’s packed into a single page. He will never be featured on Oprah’s Book Club. But this book, at least the part I happened to read this evening, was very different from his usual dense, scholarly writing. In it, he opens up a bit about his own past. Maybe because of the way my day started, or maybe just because it’s a compelling story, it really struck me.  I thought I’d share an extended quote from the book here:

I am … a survivor of “Sodom and Gomorrah”. To say this is not poetic licence in the religious sense. It is painful fact. Whenever I call up that catastrophe and descend into the dark pit of remembrance, I am overwhelmed again by fear and trembling. I am talking here about the destruction of my home city of Hamburg in the last week of July 1943. Night after night, about a thousand Royal Air Force bombers appeared over the city, and with explosive and incendiary bombs kindled a storm of fire which … burnt everything living and reduced every home to rubble. During those nights and in that fire 40,000 people died. Ironically, the code name given to this destruction by the RAF was Operation Gomorrah. Together with others belonging to my school class, I was an air force auxiliary in an anti-aircraft battery in the inner city. The battery was stationed on the Outer Alster, easily visible for aircraft, and it was completely wiped out in a hailstorm of bombs. But for some incomprehensible reason, the bomb which blew to pieces the school friend who stood beside me at the firing platform left me unscathed. I found myself in the water, clinging to a plank of wood, and was saved.

…In the end, those of us who had survived made our way through the wreckage of the streets, climbing over charred bodies. We were convinced that this was indeed “the end,” and that the war would be over in a few days. But this terrible end was followed by two other years of unending terror which destroyed the lives of millions. There is no need to describe it any further. But for the description of Hamburg as Sodom and Gomorrah I should only like to add that during the Nazi dictatorship about 40,000 people were murdered in the Neuengamme concentration camp near the city, and about 50,000 Hamburg Jews in White Russia. That too is part of the catastrophe which I escaped. At that time I was 17 years old. What effect did this catastrophe have on me?

I come from a secular Hamburg family of teachers. My grandfather was Grand Master of a Freemasons’ Lodge in Hamburg, and had left the Church. For me, religion and theology were totally remote. I wanted to study mathematics and physics. Max Planck and Albert Einstein were the secret heroes of my youth… But in that catastrophic night, for the first time in my life I cried out to God: “God, where are you?” That was my question in the face of death. It was not the theodicy question we are all familiar with – the question, how can God allow this to happen? That always seems to me like an onlooker’s question. The person who is in the grip of a catastrophe, or is already in the jaws of a mass death, asks differently about God. And then came the other question, the one which has haunted me all my life ever since: why am I still alive and not dead like the rest?

Three years as a prisoner of war, from 1945 to 1948, gave me time enough to search for answers to these two questions. In the first year particularly it was for me a struggle with the question about God. Like Jacob, wrestling at the brook Jabbok with a dark and mysterious angel, I tormented myself with God’s dark and mysterious side, with his hidden face and his deadly “no” which had put me in misery behind barbed wire. At the end of 1945 a well-meaning army chaplain gave me a Bible. I must have looked at him somewhat uncomprehendingly: a Bible of all things! I then went on to read it without much understanding until I came to Israel’s psalms of lament. Psalm 39 caught my attention: “I am dumb and must eat up my suffering within myself…”My life is as nothing before you… I am a stranger as all my fathers were.” Those were words that echoed what was in my own heart… Later, I read Mark’s gospel. And when I came to Jesus’ death cry: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I was profoundly struck. I knew: this is the one who understands you. I began to understand the Christ who was assailed by God and suffered from God, because I felt that he understood me. That gave me new courage to live. I saw colours again, heard music again, and felt the stirrings of renewed vitality.

The kindness which Scottish miners and English neighbours showed the German prisoners of war who were at that time their enemies shamed us profoundly. We were accepted as people, even though we were only numbers and wore the prisoner’s patch on our backs. But that made it possible for us to live with the guilt of our own people, the catastrophes we had brought about and the long shadows of Auschwitz, without repressing them and without becoming callous.

In that Scottish camp I arrived at Christian faith and decided to study theology. Mathematical problems lost their charm. True, I had no idea what the Church was about, but I was looking for an assurance that would sustain existence, and asked about the truth of the Christian faith. In 1948 I returned to Hamburg, limpin indeed like Jacob but “blessed.” That was my new beginning, the beginning I arrived at when Hamburg was at its end: in the end was my beginning.

Two experiences put a mark on me.

First, I discovered that in every end a new beginning lies hidden. It will find you if you look for it. Don’t lose heart!

Second, I found that if one gathers the courage to live again, the chains begin to smart, but the pain is better than the dull resignation in which nothing matters, and one is more dead than alive. (33-35)

In every end there is a new beginning. Terrifying at moments, life is still good. And God is good, too. Even in the midst of troubles, even in the midst of morning terrors with the covers pulled over your head and questions of where God is in that moment, God is still good. Don’t lose heart.

The Days Are Coming (sermon 10/20/13)

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 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,
   and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.    – Jeremiah 31:27-34

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He sat in the restaurant, nursing his second refill of coffee. They were supposed to meet here this day, but she was now past the point of being fashionably late. They’d actually known each other for a year, even though they’d never actually met in person. Like so many people these days, they met online; their entire relationship up to this point had been words on a computer screen, the 21st-century version of pen pals. During that time, they’d gotten to know each other pretty well, not just in a shallow, flirty way, but sharing their day-to-day lives, as well as their deepest thoughts, hopes, fears, dreams. They clicked; they connected.

And now, it was time to connect in person, to really meet face to face, without the emotional security of being behind a keyboard. So they’d made plans to meet at this little place they both knew, which was just about halfway between them.

But now, she was late. He’d actually been a bit early; he’d allowed extra time in case he hit traffic but he hadn’t, so he had even more time to sit there being nervous about the meeting. Where was she? Maybe *she’d* gotten stuck in traffic. Maybe her phone died. His emotions bounced from excitement to worry to confusion to anger and back again. At one point, during his third refill, he felt like a jackass; that this all might have been some cruel joke – some teenager making up an imaginary online person. At another point, he thought it was probably just as well if she didn’t show. He really wasn’t any great prize anyway, and she’d probably be unimpressed with him when his words became flesh.

These words that we read from the book of Jeremiah were originally written to people who were feeling stood up similar to this – but far worse, because they felt like they were being stood up not just by another person, by God; and not just for a half hour or so, but for some seventy-odd years. That’s how long the Israelites would live in slavery after the Kingdom of Judah, and the city of Jerusalem, were overrun by the Babylonians. Several generations would pass, and they still lived their lives in captivity, paying the price for the events long in their past. As Jeremiah put it, it was the parents who had eaten sour grapes, but it was the children who had a sour taste in their mouths. Or as my father might say, the parents burned their butt, but the children were sitting on the blister. They were suffering injustice, not because of anything they’d done, but because of situations beyond their control. And in the midst of all the pain and suffering in their world, they wondered – Where was God? When would God return and set all this right? Does God even exist at all?

We can feel the pain of the Israelites, their wondering where God is, if anywhere at all, because we share their humanity. We think, and feel, and bleed, just like they dd. the 2,500 years separating us haven’t changed that. Those years have actually given us more injustice to consider. Genocide, not just in ancient Judah, but in modern Judah, too, and in countless other places on every continent except Antarctica, and that’s only because there aren’t any people there. Slavery, not just in Babylon but in Birmingham and Bhopal. Military warfare, and social and economic warfare, and environmental warfare, cutting swaths of human devastation across the globe. And it isn’t just suffering on a global scale, but in our own lives, too. Trying to make life work in an age of downsizing, stagnating incomes or complete loss of incomes. Being just one major illness away from financial ruin. Suffering the consequences of things outside our control, paying the price of bad decisions made by others. *They* ate the sour grapes, and *our* teeth are set on edge. We know something of the pain and uncertainty that the Israelites were feeling, and we can wonder the same questions. Is God ever going to do anything to fix all this?

Through Jeremiah, God told the Israelites to not give up hope. As hard as it might be to believe at times, God hadn’t left them. God was with them, and in a way, was suffering through their problems right along with them. Their pain was his pain. But as bad as things seemed, God promised them, the day were surely coming, when God would renew them, and restore them, and bring them into new life. Hang in there, God said. I’m with you. Keep up hope – keep the faith.

God did keep the faith with the Israelites, eventually bringing them out of slavery. And God continues to keep the faith, not just with them, but gradually unfolding that new covenant to all people. Gradually speaking to our hearts, leading us toward that time when God will usher in that covenant in all of its fullness. That time when all the pain and brokenness and disconnect of this age, felt by the Israelites and felt by us, will finally come to an end; and when we will know and feel the reconciliation of all things; we’ll know the peace, and justice, and mercy, and most of all, the love, that God has designed and intended us all for. The days are coming, God says. Hang in there. Keep the faith.

We can do that, you know. We can keep the faith, because God has continued to speak into our lives, into our hearts. We can have hope, because those 2,500 years separating us from the Israelites in Babylon haven’t just shown us brokenness and disconnect, but also examples of great goodness – all of them signs to us from God that God is with us, and the days are coming. In those years, we’ve seen not just genocide, but also justice, and reconciliation, in countless situations. Not just slavery, but liberation, too, and freedom; freedom of body, freedom of mind,  and freedom of conscience, too. Not just devastation, but rebuilding, and reconstruction, and renewal. Not just death, but new life, and new hope, seen in the smile of every newborn child.

And most importantly, during those 2,500 years, we’ve seen that God has kept the faith with us through the birth of one child in particular, Christ himself. God literally entering our world, entering our lives; our joy becoming his joy; our sorrows becoming his sorrows; our pain becoming his pain – his life becoming the very seal and proof of God’s new covenant with the world. Seeing in him, and learning from him, what the fullness of that new covenant, that new life, will be like. The days are coming, God says – make no mistake, they are coming. So until then, have no fear. Have faith. Have hope. And try to extend that hope into the lives of others, giving them a glimpse of this new covenant, this new way of living, by loving them in the way shown and taught by Jesus himself – the one in whom God’s Word became flesh.

 The fifth cup of coffee was his breaking point. Maybe it was all a sham, or maybe she finally wised up and realized that he just wasn’t worth her time. He’d probably been kidding himself all along. So he gathered his thoughts and his things, and he started to get up out of the booth and head for the door. But just then, when he was at his lowest point, he looked up and saw her coming through the vestibule. And in that same moment, she saw him. Their eyes met, and her entire face broke out in a smile. And suddenly, everything was right in the world.

 The days are coming. Thanks be to God.

Giving Thanks (sermon 10/13/13)

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”    – Luke 17:11-19

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You have no idea how strange it feels to be standing here this morning – here, in this pulpit, in this church, on a Sunday morning. Standing here makes me think back to all the Sundays that my family and I worshiped here, as members of this congregation. Enjoying the great fellowship. Appreciating the wonderful music, week after week. And, especially for me, listening to the sermons. Thought-provoking, poetic sermons; sermons that, to me, were literally life-changing. And now, I find my own two feet standing in that same small piece of real estate, and I’m thinking of all those wonderful, amazing, challenging, inspiring sermons that have come out of this pulpit, and I can’t help but think… you people are going to feel really cheated this morning…

Well… I am really grateful to be preaching here today, and to be part of your pastoral team – because throughout my own personal journey of discerning my call to the ministry, and throughout the whole process to date, I’ve been helped and supported all along the way – and God’s love has been shown to me – by the fellowship, and the ministries, and the pastoral leadership of this congregation – my congregation. And for all of that, I say thank you.

Today’s passage from Luke’s gospel deals with this same thing – recognizing God’s goodness, and God’s having made us whole again; and taking the time, making the effort, to give God thanks for that. One of the ten lepers that Jesus had healed takes the time to do that, and Jesus praises him for it.

It isn’t hard to see the parallel of this story to our own lives. Through Christ, we’re healed, made whole, blessed by God, but we don’t always remember to really show our thanks for it. We can get so wrapped up in our own worries and fears that it’s hard to even see God’s goodness in our lives. I know that happens to me sometimes. And even when we do see and feel God’s love, sometimes we’re like the other nine lepers that Jesus healed, and we don’t show God our gratitude, our thanks.

So how exactly are we supposed to give God that thanks? What might God be looking for from us as a way to express that gratitude? There’s a great passage in the Old Testament book of Micah that deals with that question. In it, a man seems frustrated, almost at the end of his rope wrestling with that very question. So he stands there questioning God – calling God out, really – almost crying, almost shaking his fist, as he asks, “What will make you happy, God? Do you want me to sacrifice a whole herd of rams to you? Do you want an ocean’s worth of olive oil? What do I have to do, give you my firstborn child? WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!!!”

And then, a quiet, calm voice from the heavens answers him. “God has told you what is good. The way to make God happy – the way to show thanks to God for all the goodness God has given you – is simple: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.”

That’s how he was supposed to show thanks, and that’s how we’re supposed to show thanks, too. To work together as God’s people, as Christ’s Church, to seek justice for all people – ALL people – regardless of race, or ethnicity, or gender, or sexual identity, or religion, or what side of some man-made border a person happens to live on. And we show that thanks to God by loving kindness. To work together as God’s people, as Christ’s Church, to extend love and kindness to all who need it. To deliver a meal to a shut-in. To travel to help an orphanage for children with HIV, or to help rebuild lives after a flood or a hurricane. To hand a Bible to someone in Romania, or to help build a Habitat house here in Columbus. To deliver flowers, or a card, to offer a smile, hold a hand, of someone spending countless days in the hospital, or a nursing home. And yes, in this stewardship campaign season, to make a pledge. To write a check. To financially support the church, because paying for the electric bill and the Sunday School materials and the church staff salaries are all necessary parts of us – Christ’s Church – doing justice, and loving kindness, in all those other ways.

And you know, the amazing thing about living in God’s kingdom this way – the amazing thing about giving thanks to God by loving and serving those around us – is that we just never know how the smallest, most insignificant-seeming things we do are going to change someone’s life.

There’s a television commercial from Thailand that went viral on the internet a month or two ago; maybe you’ve seen it. The beginning of the commercial takes place in a crowded, noisy, dusty, chaotic little street in a Thai village somewhere, and we see a shopkeeper – she’s got a little boy, maybe eight years old or so, by the arm, and she’s dragging him out of her shop and out into the street. She’s roughing him up pretty badly, and yelling at him, calling him a shoplifter, a thief, and she reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bottle and a couple boxes of some kind of medicine. While she’s yelling at him, the little boy just stands there in the street, looking down at the ground, ashamed, frightened, humiliated, about to cry, until another shopkeeper, the owner of a little restaurant across the street, comes out to see what’s going on. He finds out from the boy that he tried to steal the medicine to take home to his mother, who was sick. The man takes some money out of his pocket and pays the shopkeeper for the medicine. Then he calls over to his own daughter, who’s standing in the doorway and who’s just about the same age as the boy, to bring out some soup to give the boy to take home with him.

Then the commercial moves forward; now it’s thirty years later. And we see the same restaurant owner, now an old man, working in his restaurant with his now-adult daughter, when suddenly the old man suffers a stroke. He crashes to the floor, and he’s rushed to the hospital. He survives, but he’s got a long and difficult recovery ahead of him. While the old man is still recovering, his daughter gets a bill for the hospital services – it’s thousands and thousands of dollars, which she obviously doesn’t have. She’s beside herself; she doesn’t know how she’s ever going to pay the bill. She even puts the little restaurant up for sale to pay for at least part of it.

One day, the daughter is visiting her father in the hospital. And she’s so distraught, and so exhausted from worry, that she actually falls asleep, slumped over her father’s bed there in the hospital room. When she wakes up, there’s an envelope sitting on the bed next to her. She opens it, and it’s a statement from the hospital, and it shows that she owes absolutely nothing – the debt has been paid in full. And at the bottom of the statement is a note, written by the doctor who’s been taking care of her father – a nice young man, who just happens to be almost exactly the same age as the daughter. And the note simply said, “All expenses paid thirty years ago – with three packets of painkiller and a bag of vegetable soup.”

We just never know how our actions, offered in thanks to God, offered in love to others in Christ’s name, will change someone else’s life – and maybe, in the process, our own lives, too. In my own life, I’ve seen the results of God working through this congregation. But whether we ever see the results of our actions or not, they’re there. And that’s how Christ has called us, as individuals and together as his Church, to give thanks to God – for forgiving our own debt, canceling it out not 30 years ago but 2,000 years ago; and for all the untold goodness that God was filled our lives with. The healed leper pleased God by giving thanks. And we please God by giving thanks, too, by doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with God – whether that comes in the form of a mission trip, or a hospital visit, or a church staffer’s salary – or three packs of painkiller and a bag of vegetable soup.

Thanks be to God.

Listen to this sermon:

Coffee Shop Blues

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After spending last night watching probably my favorite cult movie of all time – one of Pittsburgh’s greatest contributions to cinema, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead – and then feeling a need to watch My Cousin Vinny again, I got a later than usual start to my day this morning. I eventually crawled out of bed, got ready to step out into the world, and went to my favorite coffee shop/hangout here in Gahanna to nurse a cup of house blend forever while trying to finally finish reading a book I’ve been piecemealing for too long – Pub Theology by Bryan Berghoef.

When I got to the shop, a sign on the front door announced that they were now under new management. Honestly, it didn’t come as a terrible surprise. From personal past experience, I recognized the small signs of struggling ownership, I noted mysteriously disappearing employees, and I overheard occasional bits of tense, under-the-breath telephone conversations about money issues during recent visits. I guess I hoped my perceptions were mistaken, but honestly, the signs were all there for those who had lived it themselves, to those who had eyes to see.

This would actually be the third ownership of the shop since I started hanging out there shortly after it opened. To be honest, most of the people that made the place so enjoyable for me had left when the second owners showed up. They seemed nice enough, and a couple of the old regulars provided some continuity, but over time they’d sort of drifted away, too. And now there would be new owners.

I stepped inside and walked up to the counter. Everything looked pretty much the same, except the menu board was slightly different. The price of a medium house blend had gone up a quarter, but no big deal. There were two people working behind the counter, a young woman and a middle-aged man. The woman was preparing a drink for a customer, while the man was doing some staff-type thing with his back turned more or less to me. I stood there at the counter – not for an excessively long time, but long enough that I should have been acknowledged. I wasn’t. The woman, no more than five or six feet away from me, never even looked my way. After a little while longer, the man did look over at me – giving me the same sort of look that a scientist might give a mold sample in a petri dish; a kind of disconnected observance with no real emotional connection of any kind. He just stared at me for a moment, then, without a smile, without a nod, without a “Hi, how are you?” or a “We’ll be with you in a moment,” he just turned back around and kept doing whatever it was he was doing – which actually wasn’t much. Once he got done doing his not much, and while his coworker continued to ignore my presence, he turned and looked back at me standing at the counter – now with a couple also standing behind me. Ah, I thought, now he’ll come take my order. Instead, after staring at me for another while, he turned his back on me again, and, putting his hands on his hips just stood there, back to me and the people behind me, looking around for something else to do that he must have considered more important than waiting on his customers.

I turned and walked out, muttering incredulity as I did. Time to find a new coffee shop.

To be honest, I’ve waited lots longer for service any number of times in this place in the past. But there was always some clear reason for the wait. And even then, there was a smile, a greeting, an acknowledgement that I was there, and that I wasn’t being viewed as an intrusion.

Maybe I just caught the new ownership at a bad time. For their sake, I hope so. I hope they understand that a customer doesn’t have to come into their particular place; there are coffee shops all over, and for the most part, the quality of the product and the atmosphere are not all that different. What matters is attention to the customer/visitor, and making human connections; acknowledging them, making them feel welcome and a part of things. And the window for fostering those connections is surprisingly small – make someone feel unimportant or unwelcome even once, and there’s not likely going to be a second opportunity (under the previous ownerships, I felt comfortable enough to wander behind the counter to get my own free refills if the staff was busy; here today, I was mold). Churchy types, it wasn’t my intention to do so when I started writing this, but feel free to draw the obvious ecclesiastical parallels here. He who has ears to hear, and all that.

So, darn. Where’s my new coffee hangout going to be?

Prayer List

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While I was rummaging around in the office for something the other day, I found maybe a dozen copies of a small book, “Letters to a Young Doubter,” by the great William Sloane Coffin. According to a note written on the inside, they were originally intended as gifts to recent high school graduates, but these few copies were either extras or for one reason or another went unclaimed by the graduates. I snagged one of the copies for my desk, and in the spare moments I’ll pull it out and read a few pages of the book, which is formatted as a series of letters from Coffin to an imaginary young university student – kind of a much more thoughtful, but sometimes almost as funny, literary version of one of Bob Newhart’s one-way telephone call routines. Coffin certainly didn’t invent the genre, but as far as I’ve gotten into it at this point – which, admittedly, is not very – it’s pretty good.

One thing that Coffin writes early on struck a familiar chord. He’s been asked by his imaginary friend to explain his personal journey into faith. As he lays out his story, he writes of having lost his youthful innocence and naivete as a result of his military experience during and just after World War II, and his entrance into college immediately after that:

Once in college I searched hard for answers. I read the French existentialists – “crisis thinkers” – Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Andre Malraux, and especially Albert Camus, all professed atheists. Also I steeped myself in Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, all profound theologians. My mind went toward the atheists, but my heart was pulled toward the theologians. Both had a tragic sense of life, both knew what hell was all about, but in the depths of it the theologians found a heaven that made more sense out of everything, much as light gives meaning to darkness.

Sensing a troubled soul, a small band of Christian students came to convert me. But their answers seemed too pat; their submission to God, too ready. It occurred to me that as with parents so with God; too easy a submission is but a facade for repressed rebellion. Besides, they didn’t look redeemed!

Actually, I was right about their repressed rebellion. When I told them it was time for us to part company, their leader said with a sweetness that thinly veiled his hostility, “Well, Bill, you’ll always be on our prayer list.” I couldn’t help but ask, “And how does your prayer list differ from your shit list?”

Aside from nearly causing me to spit my coffee across my desk from laughter, he hit on an incredible insight. I saw this same hostility and smugness camouflaged as compassion while socializing with a group of fellow Christian students as an undergraduate, just a few years before the Great Extinction that killed off the dinosaurs. As repulsive as it was to see it in them, it became even more repulsive when I realized it wasn’t just in them, but in me as well. Since at that time I hadn’t been exposed to any other way of understanding Christianity, it caused a crisis of faith: Was the Jesus of the four gospels, whom I was intrigued by and drawn to, really trying to create a worldwide following of self-righteous pains-in-the-ass?

Unfortunately, that’s been the case all too often. In situations like the one Coffin describes, to say “I’ll be praying for you” is pure hostility, nothing more than saying “Go to hell” in Spiritualese, and we’ve all probably found ourselves engaging in it any number of times in our lives. To be clear, I recognize that most people who say, “I’ll be praying for you” to another person in some kind of real or perceived distress offer the sentiment with good, maybe even the best, intentions. But even in those times, and even if unintended, there’s a kind of hostility in the words that, if we really do care about the person, we should recognize. It’s very possible, to be honest, that the person may not want your prayers, at least at that moment in their faith journey, for reasons that you’ll never be aware of – and your unsolicited prayers for them in that moment will be considered a personal invasion, a kind of spiritual mugging. Maybe, in cases like that, and if we know that it’s a person of faith, it’s best to ask, “Would you like me to pray for you? And if so, just what would you want me to pray for?” Or maybe – again, if it’s a person of faith – “Would you like to pray about this now, together?” Other times, maybe we just decide to pray for the person without making the public service announcement about it.  Telling someone “I’ll pray for you” can very easily make that person – and us as well – feel that when we do offer those prayers, we’ll be doing so from some position just a bit loftier than the person who is the object of our prayers. We have some better, more reliable track to God’s ear than they do; that Jesus loves them, but he loves us a little bit more, so we’ll use some of our own spiritual mojo to get this person’s application moved higher up in the Inbox on Jesus’ desk.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all anti-prayer. Some of the times in my life of deepest spiritual significance, and spiritual growth, have been times when I’ve shared in prayer with another person or small group of people, either as the person praying for another or as the person needing the prayer. Sometimes, though – and I’m not talking about the obvious hostile prayer-curses mentioned earlier – even with the best of intentions, the way we speak with others, the way we offer our prayers for others, inside the faith or out, can automatically reinforce the feeling of our difference instead of common humanity and brokenness. If we aren’t very careful, we can give the dangerous impression that we think we have all the answers, instead of humbly acknowledging that we don’t have many more answers than the other person – and often enough, even fewer answers – and are in need of prayer just as much as they are. Maybe instead of putting a spotlight on ourselves by announcing that we’ll be praying for the presence of Christ in the person’s life, we should just be it.