The Right Way

(sermon 8/25/19)

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Photo by KML. Used with permission

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

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So there she was – hunched over, unable to stand up straight for almost two decades, in pain all that time, and you know there are few things worse than back pain – and yet she still managed to find a way to get to the synagogue most weeks. This week, she was running a little behind and didn’t get there until after things started. One person shifted a bit to make room for her to sit down there in the back, trying not to disturb anyone while she got settled in. That one busybody that every synagogue seemed to have looking over at her judgingly because she’d come in late; most people not even really noticing her at all.  But Jesus noticed her, and because he did, this would be the day she went down in history. It’s a shame that we don’t even know her name; we really should, but in any case, on this day Jesus healed her from eighteen years of discomfort and misery. Her pain, her burden, had been lifted. And the story tells us that all the people were amazed and rejoiced at what had happened – except for one.

The head of the synagogue wasn’t impressed at all. For some reason, he couldn’t see the forest for the trees, he couldn’t see the goodness of helping this woman in need for what it was, because of the way Jesus did it. It broke the rules. Things have to follow the rules, or they obviously aren’t right. There was a right way and a wrong way to do things, even good things, and this wasn’t the right way.

It’s a claim that has run down through history to our current time just as much as the story of the woman’s healing itself. It’s been a continuous point of discussion and debate within the church, and beyond the church, for that matter: what is the relationship of obedience to established laws versus breaking them for what’s perceived to be obedience to a higher moral and spiritual law? When do we obey the laws that govern us, and when do we refuse to adhere to them? This has been the center of the debate whether looking at the way the first Christians were supposed to respond to the persecution they received from Rome, to whether it was right to protest and even separate from the church during the Reformation, to whether the Church should support the Nazi regime in Germany or fight against it, to whether it was right for Dr. King and his allies, including our own Stated Clerk at the time, Eugene Carson Blake, to break the law in their protests for civil rights – was a Christian supposed to obey an unjust law out of respect for the established governance, or was a Christian required to disobey an unjust law as being invalid because it was unjust? I remember being a little boy and hearing my family members sitting around at family functions discussing the events of those times, the mid- to late 60s and the civil rights movement, and saying that yes, there should be civil rights and equality, but the protestors had to stay within the law – that they went a literal bridge too far when they disobeyed the law; that was unacceptable. And I’ve been through Blake’s papers. The letters he got, the personal attacks, were brutal, with people bashing him because as the head of the church he’d had the nerve to break the law and get arrested while protesting to desegregate an amusement park in Baltimore. We think that the social media age has made us all meaner and harsher toward each other, but looking at those letters to him, I can tell you the language was the same back then; the only difference is that back then it came with a postage stamp. And of course, we hear this same issue come up in the current refugee and immigration debates, when people say that migrants need to “do it the right way” when entering the country fleeing for their lives and safety. What’s the answer to this question?

From the standpoint of the scriptures, Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” And throughout Christian history, people who have argued for unquestioned obedience to the established order have quoted this passage as a definitive answer – even while they forget that it really can’t be quite that definitive, since the man who wrote this was himself sitting in a prison cell for defying the laws of the government, and who wrote that he was proud to have done so as a matter of faith, and who urged other believers to stand fast just as he had. Even more significantly, it’s no small thing to remember that at the very center of our faith is the crucifixion of Jesus, which was a direct result of his civil disobedience of Roman authority.

But let’s go back to the woman in the synagogue who was healed. Can you imagine what it must have been like to have been there in the synagogue that day? Everyone having come together from all the different events and cares of their own week, all of their problems, all of their setbacks, the continuous stream of bad and bizarre news showing up on their Facebook feeds to the point of emotional exhaustion – and then this. Something pure, and good, and right, happening before their very eyes, giving them hope that despite all the rest, God was with them, and that God was good. Jesus healing this woman was inspiring, joy-causing proof that there was indeed a right way and a wrong way to do things, and when it came right down to it, to do good – to be kind, to be compassionate, to be helpful, to love, is always the right thing, regardless of what any rules or regulations or laws might say to the contrary. Any rule or regulation or law that didn’t help to offer love offers hate, and any rule or law that offers hate is an immoral and invalid law that in God’s eyes doesn’t need to be obeyed; *should not* be obeyed. To always act in this way is, in fact, “doing it the right way.”

In this story, we hear that the people there rejoiced when Jesus healed the woman. In that moment, all the negativity they were experiencing off their shoulders and they felt refreshed, renewed, inspired.

I believe that it’s the same with us, too.  When we’re faced with questions of whether a rule or regulation or law is good or proper and to be obeyed; or whether to disobey it favor of a greater moral, spiritual good in the kingdom of God; when we have to decide what “doing it the right way” really means, all that we have to do is follow the simple theology of Mr. Rogers – “Just be kind.” Always choose to do the kind, compassionate thing, and we will *always* be doing the right thing. We will always be doing it the right way. And we should do it out of gratitude, knowing that God has been kind and compassionate and loving to us in our own lives, even when the rules and regulations and laws have opposed it. So out of that gratitude, we too are called to do things this right way, regardless of what the rules and laws say. Because it isn’t just Mr. Rogers’ theology, it’s Christ’s theology, too, so it should be all of ours as well?

Thanks be to God.

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Stress and Shalom

(sermon 8/18/19)

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Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

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Watch this sermon online: https://bit.ly/2Mqe7PM

There was a Washington state representative who’d gotten himself in some trouble a while back when a manifesto he’d written was leaked to the public. The representative is an extremist conservative Christian, and his manifesto was titled “The Biblical Basis for War;” it was all about how people who shared his religious and political views needed to prepare themselves for a coming holy war between them and Muslims, liberals, and pretty much everyone in the world who didn’t hold to their specific extremist beliefs. This man found himself back in the news this past week because it was discovered that he was connected with a group that runs camps for adult men, teens, and even children, to teach them actual combat techniques to prepare for this supposedly coming religious holy war.

The representative is far from alone. He’s just one person in a growing extremist movement within Christianity that espouses what’s known as Dominionist Theology. There are different strands of it, but they all agree on the idea that they have been specially appointed by God to exercise complete dominion over society by taking control of all religious, political, and cultural institutions, in order to implement their interpretation of God’s will on society as the law of the land – essentially eliminating the idea of democracy or representative government, and replacing it with an extremist conservative Christian theocracy.

These people are a very real threat to our country and our society, and their dangerous beliefs are increasingly being put into violent action. They believe that God ordains and blesses the idea that Christians – their kind of Christians, at least – are called to take control of government and society by force if necessary. They believe that Christianity isn’t supposed to be humble, or meek, or peaceful, but instead, it’s supposed to be strong, and powerful, and take the world over for God by force. It’s the same twisted concept that was used to justify the Crusades, and the so-called German Christian movement in Nazi Germany, and that gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan, and any number of other harmful movements within Christian history, and now we’re seeing it rise again. In each case, these people will point to certain snippets of scripture to justify their militant mindset – and today’s gospel text is one of those.

In this passage, Jesus seems on the surface to be looking forward to, he almost seems to be longing for, the violent divisions that his coming into the world would cause. So what are we supposed to make of this? Are these Dominionists right? Well, in a word, no; in fact, their twisted biblical interpretation borders on crazy. They’re actually so kooky that if they weren’t so dangerous, they’d be laughable.

But really, with all the divisiveness in the world today, it would seem like the last thing we need to hear  are words from Jesus that seem to glorify and encourage this kind of violent division as being God’s will, and that would give these extremist groups any cover. Still, here are the words that Luke attributes to Jesus, and these are the words that we have to deal with. So what’s he talking about here?

It’s really undeniable that Jesus is saying that his coming into the world, and the message of the gospel he was proclaiming, was going to cause great division, disagreements, stress, as people wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ life. Trying to understand the gospel that he proclaimed has certainly split families, and nations, apart; we all know that; and it’s done that on its own without any added help needed from half-baked pseudo-Christian paramilitary groups trying to start another holy war, or any addle-minded politicians who cozy up to them. If you just consider your own life, your own beliefs, I’m sure that you can identify some difference of belief, probably a strong difference of belief, between you and some relatively close family member. Parents; children; brothers or sisters, who just operate on a different religious belief system than you do. The division is real; the stress that it creates is real. And most of us don’t like or want confrontation and division; most of us would be much happier if we could all find a way to avoid that. But Jesus tells us that we really can’t ever totally avoid it. Sure, we need to work at being a peaceful, unifying presence; this is an important command that Christ has given us – but at some time or another, we’ll be unable to reconcile with someone else, and it’s going to cause division, and stress. The truth is, there are simply times that we’re going to have to take a stand for some aspect of our faith, and speak out against those who would have a different or opposite view. There will be times where we have to speak truth to power, and stir the pot, and even cause discomfort to some, in order to work some change for the betterment of God’s people. And sometimes, that will make us unpopular. It might cause people to say unkind things about us. Sometimes, it will probably lose us friends. It might even break family relationships, as Jesus mentions in this gospel text. I’m sure that most of us has experienced that in some way or another.

So we have to take Jesus’ promise that the gospel, and living it out, would cause division, seriously. But we shouldn’t take these words more seriously than many other promises that Jesus gave us. Most importantly, we should take seriously Jesus’ words that even when we face problems, divisions, stress, as a result of taking a stand to live out the precepts of the kingdom of God, and especially working to help make the kingdom real in the lives of others, not to fear – that as bad as those stresses might be, God has also promised us a life of joy, and complete, utter contentment and peace in every aspect of our present and future being, physically, spiritually, emotionally – a life of the all-encompassing peace described by the Hebrew word shalom. So here again today, we’ll eat bread together, and drink wine together. We’ll do it together recognizing our differences, even celebrating them, and praying for difference without division. We’ll come to this table as a sign of our desire to be in relationship with God, and not only with God, with one another. Coming to this table is a sign to the world that we offer a different way, a way of peace, a way of unity, a way of compassion; not a way of division, violence, or war. We’ll come to this table, this meal, proclaiming the good news of that time when God will end all divisions, end all stress, and draw all of us into unity with God’s self, and unity with all people, in the great eternal banquet prepared for us, and in the great shalom that we’ve been created to enjoy. That’s the dominion that we look forward to – a dominion that won’t be ushered in by a militia of violence and stupidity, but rather, by the incarnation of God’s eternal Wisdom, the Prince of Peace.

Thanks be to God.

 

(Another) Unnamed Sermon

(sermon 8/4/19)

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Photo © Ken Chuchu

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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Imagine this scene: you’re having a conversation with someone and you’re explaining something in great detail, something important, something they really need to be paying attention to; and then, in the middle of that, the person will ask you about something completely unrelated to anything talking about. And you know that they haven’t been listening; their mind has been somewhere else. It’s all been a waste of time, ten or fifteen minutes of your life you’ll never get back. It’s annoying, and frustrating, and at one point or another, we’ve all been there.

It seems that Jesus was there, too, at the beginning of today’s gospel text. As it opens, Jesus has been speaking with a crowd of people, teaching them about the ways of the kingdom of God. And in the middle of his teaching, someone in the crowd pipes up and asks step into a financial dispute between him and his older brother, to convince the brother to split up the inheritance with him. It probably caught Jesus broadside for a moment, realizing the man hadn’t heard a word of what he’d been saying. And after he shook his head for a moment, he said to the man, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Trying to refocus the man’s attention back onto God, the subject of Jesus’ message that day. Then, he essentially offered a warning to the man to be careful what he asked for; that while wealth and personal possessions weren’t an inherently bad thing, it can lead to greed – wanting more and more, and wanting to hoard it all for yourself, and maybe worst of all, eventually leading to a false understanding of where the wealth came form to begin with. For example, if the man in the story did actually get his brother to split up the inheritance, it wouldn’t be long before he’d forgotten that this wealth had been given to him, and he’d be telling people that he’d earned his wealth by his own two hands, his own hard work and smarts.

I say that might be even worse than the underlying greed because not only isn’t it a delusional lie, contrary to facts, it ends up poisoning the mind into thinking that the self is the center and measure of the universe. Greed leads a person to think that they’re a self-sufficient, self-contained system, insulated from needing or considering or caring for anyone else, including even God. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he tells the story of the rich man that he ultimately calls a fool. Did you hear the man’s inner monologue in the story? “What should *I* do?… *I* will do this… *I* will build bigger, taller… *I* will keep more of *my* stuff, all for *me*… it will all be by my doing, without anyone’s help, not even God’s, so *I* will say to my soul, good job; well done, now take it easy – you got yours; let everyone else worry about getting their own….” It’s all about him and his own supposed abilities – it’s a closed system where no one else enters. He’s good at gaining wealth and building things, but his life isn’t connected to anything. His buildings are full but his soul is empty.

Make no mistake: that mindset, regardless of the specific details and wherever and in whoever it’s found, is the complete, polar opposite of the gospel. It is the complete opposite of the precepts of the kingdom of God. It is the complete opposite of Christ.

And make no mistake about this, either: the same mindset that’s embedded within that greed, the wanting to have and to keep more of everything for yourself at the expense of others who are supposedly not as important as you; is exactly the same mindset, taken to its ultimate conclusion, that’s embedded in yesterday’s white supremacist, white nationalist terrorist attack targeting Latinos in El Paso – this man who came to believe that just by virtue of the color of his skin, he had a right to kill or wound 46 people all in the name of protecting the country from the supposed threat of brown-skinned people, and preserving the supposed “whitenesss” and white control of our country. It’s the same self-centered mindset that was behind the shootings in Gilroy this past week, and El Paso yesterday, and then again, not even getting a single night’s sleep after El Paso, early this morning in Dayton. It’s the same damned mindset.

I’m not going to say much about these shootings today, because frankly, I’ve run out of things to say. It’s all been said, over, and over, and over again, and I’m just sick and tired of it. I’m done with trying to craft  another lofty sounding prayer of lament, and asking “How long, O God, how long?” because at this point, I’m pretty much convinced that God’s response to all the beautiful sounding prayers offered up after another mass shooting is to scream at us to just shut up. That our society’s obsession with guns and violence, and using them in order to solve our problems, and that our current lack of common-sense regulation of gun ownership that still respects our Second Amendment rights is just insane. God has given us the intellect and the ability to do something about the problem but for whatever reason, we don’t. So I’m convinced that God’s response is to say stop trying to pin the problem, or the solution, on me; the problem, and the solution, lies with you.

Jesus was trying to get his listeners that day to stay focused on the real truths, the real priorities that he was explaining to them. He was trying to show them that he was talking about an alternative way of living from the insulated, self-focused way the rich man in the story saw life, the way that many people in the world see life.

The way of the rich man – the way of loving self at the expense of others, leads to hatred of the other, and all manner of harm and violence against the other.

Proclaiming and teaching and living out that alternative way, the eternal way of living, is what all this is about. This church family, this building, everything about us, is geared toward proclaiming a reality 180 degrees away from that other sick, twisted way of thinking.

Here, we’re part of a church family that includes people born not only in the United States, but Mexico, Iran, and India, and Hongkong, and England, and those just the examples I can quickly think of. Members of our church family are from all different ethnic backgrounds, and while we’re predominantly white, we are multiracial. Members of our church family are from different religious backgrounds – on a given Sunday, you can find members of all three Abrahamic faiths here in this place. Within our church family and our immediate families, we represent L, G, B, T, and Q. If you aren’t here in the building throughout the week, you may not know it, but with our ESL students and their children, you can often hear laughter and a dozen different languages being spoken. God draws all of us together here, under this roof, which was raised not like the rich fool raising the roof of another barn to hoard his stuff but rather, to shelter all of God’s people under it, to offer the world a witness to the gospel truth that all people are beloved and equal in the eyes of God. We come here, to this Table, to this sacrament, this common meal shared by all, to offer witness to our unity with God and with one another; to say NO to anyone who would preach the evil of separation and division and self-centeredness and the supremacy of one race or one people over another; and YES to the kingdom of God and to the dignity, equality, and value of all of God’s children. Here at this Table there is no room for hatred. There is no room for racism. There is no room for white supremacy or white nationalism. There is no room for xenophobia, for fear of foreigners, immigrants, or asylum-seekers. There is no room for homophobia; there is no room for sexism; there is no room for self-centeredness or exclusion of any kind because here at this Table, Christ says that there is room and welcome for ALL. That is at the core of the gospel. That is at the core of what Jesus was trying to teach his listeners that day. And that is at the core of our response to the evil of white supremacy, white nationalism, and hatred of the other that has become so common in this country today.

Amen.

Prayer is Weird.

(sermon 7/28/19)

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Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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Prayer is weird. Can we all just admit that? I mean, really, no matter how close you might feel with God, the whole idea of prayer can seem a little strange and farfetched – this idea that any time we want, all we have to do is close our eyes, or not, and have instant one-on-one access with the all-powerful, transcendent Source of All Being and Creator of the Multiverse. To have a deep, intimate conversation with God, any time we want, and for any length of time we want, without having to fill out any forms; or wait on hold listening to The Girl from Ipanema repeating twenty times and being told to be patient, your call is very important to God; or having our topic of discussion pre-screened by some heavenly personal assistant. To have that kind of access with God… it’s just a weird concept.

It’s also weird when we try to nail down just how, or even if, prayer works. Trying to understand the mechanics of it all. Does God really want to weigh in with advice on whether we should buy Rice Krispies or Corn Flakes in the grocery store, or the Honda or the Chevy, or the house on Walnut Street of Columbus Avenue? Or, can we really get God to do something, or change something, just because we ask for it? I mean, prayer is an important part of our ministry here; we pray for one another every Sunday, we have people committed to praying as part of the prayer chain throughout the week, and our Pastoral Care Team has prayer every week, too, so is it right that we can have that kind of influence with God?  And if that’s the case, if God’s mind can be changed like that, does that mean that God is just somehow bumbling through eternity making mistakes, until being corrected by us from time to time, or that God is like some weak or unprincipled politician who decides what to do based on whatever the last person he heard from wants, or whoever flatters him the most? And there’s the question of why some people’s prayers seem to be answered while others’ aren’t – we’ve all seen someone being interviewed after some tragedy, maybe a tornado or another mass shooting, and the person says that they were praying, and they were so grateful that God answered their prayers and saved them, but wasn’t God with those other people too, and weren’t they praying just as much? Or maybe a more basic question would be whether we’re really just deluding ourselves thinking that we have that kind of access at all. Instead of reaching the heights of heaven, do all of our words actually just stop at the drywall of our bedroom ceilings?

In the face of those kinds of questions, we have stories from scripture like the one we heard today from Luke. There, we heard Jesus telling his disciples that they should most definitely pray, that they do have that kind of direct access with God, and he offers them a sample framework for prayer that we’ve come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. And then he goes further, encouraging them that when they pray, to not be meek or mealy-mouthed in their prayer, but to pray specifically, and to be bold, audacious even, and to be confident that God will hear them.

And maybe that’s where our biggest difficulty with prayer comes in, because we’ve all prayed for something and not received it – and I don’t mean superficial things, but really important things. Let me get that job. Help save my child’s marriage. Make the abuse stop; make the cancer disappear. But it doesn’t. And that seems to contradict what Jesus told his disciples. And  we come up with explanations for that, with sayings like “God answers all prayers; it’s just that sometimes, the answer is no,” they all end up sounding lame and weak, and not much more than a bit of rhetoric to help us say we believe something is true when deep down in our hearts, it doesn’t really seem true at all.

Or even worse, we might see that unanswered prayer as a sign of our own moral or spiritual failing, because we all know that Jesus said if we only had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could ask God to move mountains and it would happen. So if it doesn’t happen, there must be something wrong with our faith, doesn’t there?

He was a hospital chaplain working the overnight shift yet again, when he was called to a patient’s room sometime around two in the morning to offer pastoral care to a family whose elderly father was near death. When he got to the room, he saw the man in bed, motionless; his jaw hanging open, his forearms drawn up close to his chest, that involuntary reflex to conserve body heat that’s a sign that the body is in the process of shutting down. The family asked the chaplain to lead them in prayer, to ask God to miraculously heal the man and keep him alive. The chaplain felt real compassion for them; his heart went out to them; but he started to tell them the same thing he’d told many other families in many other hospital rooms, that it would probably be more appropriate to pray for comfort and peace for their father; and for God’s will to be done; and to give God thanks for a life well-lived, and to give thanks that their father would soon be in God’s loving arms. The chaplain only got about half of that advice out, though, before the family started yelling at him, telling him that he had brought a spirit of antichrist and faithlessness and evil into the room, and that his presence would prevent God from healing their father. Together, the family members physically shoved him out of the room, and then they formed a circle around the man’s bed, praying and thinking God for the miraculous healing that they were sure God was about to perform.

The chaplain left the floor. He stopped by the cafeteria and had a dried-out cheeseburger that had been under the heat lamps for far too long, and a cup of mediocre coffee. Shortly after he’d finished it, he was paged back to the same room, to work with the same family, now to fill out all the paperwork that was necessary in the wake of the old man’s death; and to offer pastoral care to the family regarding the loss of their father; but now also regarding their crisis of faith – they were mortified that apparently, their faith wasn’t sufficient; that God had examined their hearts and found them wanting; that supposedly, they weren’t good enough or pure enough for God to give them the miracle they’d expected.

The family had definitely gotten that part of their beliefs wrong; the man’s death wasn’t the result of any lack of purity or faithfulness on their part. But maybe they had one thing right. They weren’t afraid to be bold, audacious, with their prayer, making very clear to God what their real hopes and aspirations were, regardless of what they were. That’s actually very much what Jesus told his disciples to do in today’s gospel text.

The truth is, other than Jesus telling us that God wants us to pray, and that God hears our prayers, I really don’t know much about it. I don’t understand the mechanics of it, and I don’t know the answers to all those sticky questions about it. Like everyone else, I’ve offered prayers and been disappointed. And like everyone else, I’ve offered other prayers that seemed to be fulfilled. And even though I consider myself to be a person of deep faith, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t really know for sure if the outcomes in either case were the result of the hand of God, or coincidence, or just fat dumb chance. But what I do know is that praying, not what we’re expected to say, not what the “right thing” is to say, but praying what I actually felt and thought, just laying it all out there, shamelessly and without any theological jargon, has helped me sense God in the midst of things. Telling the truth to God and myself through prayer has helped me to hear God in the thing, and to be reassured that whatever it was that was going on in my life, God was in the thick of it with me.

And yes, while there have been many times when I’ve prayed and felt alone in the exercise, there have also been times when I’ve prayed, and usually when I’m in the deepest of grief or anxiety, I’ve felt in some inexplicable way, surrounded by warmth, and acceptance, and assurance, and a feeling that I can only describe as “liquid love, flowing down and completely enveloping me, and I had absolutely no doubt that in that moment, I was in the very presence of God – that in that moment, I was in true communion with the divine, the holy of holies of all eternity. And my spirit was lifted. I was transformed. And because of that, I know that no matter how many questions I might have about prayer, and how many times I might intellectually think prayer works this way or another, or doesn’t work this way or another, I know that prayer is important, and that it is real connection between us and God.

So from start to finish, prayer is something that we won’t ever really understand. But then again, part of the good news in all of this for us is that Jesus never said we had to completely understand it; he only said that God wants us to do it – and to do it boldly, audaciously, shamelessly, honestly. And maybe that is weird. But if it is weird, it’s God’s kind of weird, and that’s the kind of weirdness that I’m okay with.

Thanks be to God.

Gut Theology

(sermon 7/14/19)

Bones and Spock

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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A week or two ago, an old friend that I grew up with made a post on Facebook that too many Christians were supposedly making a mistake of letting their feelings and emotions guide their actions, instead of using their heads – and that that led them into bad theology and sin. What he wrote was really just a reflection of a dispute that’s older than Christianity, or religion at all, and that goes all the way back to our earliest human origins – the question of the relationship and relative importance of intellect versus emotion; of thinking versus feeling – Of Spock versus Bones; or in the verbal shorthand of our culture, of head versus heart. In our western society, we’ve tended to strongly favor head over heart, holding that intellect is superior to emotions – that intellect is based on data and logic; it’s supposedly objective; you can put it on a spreadsheet and write formulas for it; where emotions are supposedly soft, ambiguous, fuzzy; they’re unpredictable and therefore, inferior. They aren’t, my old friend would say, a reliable way to understand the reality of a situation, or specifically, a reliable way to understand God, or to understand what God wishes might be in a given situation.

You can see the head-versus-heart debate in the scriptures and in the early church in the debate over what was more important – professing the right things, or doing the right things; or as the theologians would say, the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Paul and James contribute a lot to that debate in the scriptures, and so do many of the ancient prophets, and Jesus certainly jumps into the debate with both feet. And when you look at what Jesus and the majority of those others had to say about the subject, you’ll see that they believed that both our intellects and our emotions are equally important parts of our having been created in God’s image. They’re both important kinds of intelligence. They’re both based on data inputs; different kinds of data to be sure, but important data nonetheless. And frankly, when you look at Jesus’ words and the totality of the scriptural witness, as much as it might upset our Western, supposedly objective, head-based sensibilities, if Jesus and the others did favor any one of the two over the other, it was generally the heart knowledge, the emotional intelligence, that took precedence over the head.

We see that in today’s gospel text, the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man had questioned Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. When pushed by Jesus to try to answer his own question about what it would take, the man rattled off the Law, the scriptural commandments that he’d learned in Sunday School when he was small that he was supposed to believe, and he’d apparently taken them to heart. But then Jesus pushed him further, saying it wasn’t enough to just say he believed these things were correct; he had to actually let his emotions kick in and put those intellectual propositions into actual practice.

In this parable that Jesus offered to explain his point, the first two people who walked by the beaten and suffering man, one of their own countrymen, both were upstanding religious men who professed all those same commandments as the man who had questioned Jesus – they could have rattled off the same list of commandments from the Torah, the Law.

We’ve all seen and heard of the horrible situation on our southern border right now, with refugees, asylum-seekers; men, women, and children; being detained in vastly overcrowded facilities and often being denied the basic essentials of health and hygiene. We’ve all heard about the obscene policy of forcibly separating children, even infants, from their parents. Recently, during a television segment discussing those situations, a well-known commentator on a national news network said that well, yes, it’s a sad situation and all, but actually, you know, those aren’t our children. This was the mindset of those first two men who walked past the beaten men in the parable and did nothing. It was a shame, to be sure, but it really wasn’t any real concern of theirs. He wasn’t their problem.

These two men couldn’t make the connection that the religious Law that they professed and said they believed in was really a call to act with compassion – with their feelings and emotions – and that sometimes, the right practice of the intent of the Law might require them to act contrary to the letter of that Law.

Jesus tells us that the third man to come along was a Samaritan – a foreigner, part of a group who were despised by the Jews, and vice versa. The Samaritan wasn’t a part of the Jewish religious tradition; for all we know, he may not have been an adherent of any religion at all. And he knew that on any other day, the man he saw lying in a pool of blood along the side of the road could very possibly have been a serious threat to him. He’d probably have hurt the Samaritan, thrown a rock at him, or worse, if they’d met on the street. Still, whether he was an adherent of the Jewish faith or not, the Samaritan had the same Law within him that was professed by the others who’d come along, but in his case, it was written on his heart instead of his head.

Our Bible translation says that the Samaritan felt “pity” for the beaten man. That’s an unfortunate translation that doesn’t really capture the full meaning of the word being translated, and it implies that the Samaritan felt a sense of superiority, and was looking down on the beaten man. But this word being translated actually means that he felt deep, extreme compassion for him. Today, we’d say that our heart ached for the man, or that our heart went out to him, or was broken for him. In Jesus’ time they’d have conveyed the same idea by talking about their inner organs, their intestines – their guts. In fact, that’s actually what this Greek word literally refers to; it means that the Samaritan felt a deep compassion to the core of his intestines, his guts, for the suffering man, his would-be enemy. The Samaritan allowed his emotions, his gut, to rule the day, to write his theology, and not his head. And this, of all the possible stories Jesus could weave, was the illustration that he used to teach what’s most important to God, and what eternal life is all about. Head theology is good and important, but only in so far as it’s interpreted and converted into “Gut Theology.”

It’s gut theology that we celebrate today, as we recognize and commission all those in this congregation who will be living out their faith by working with Habitat for Humanity this year. If you’re one of those workers, realize that you are all gut theologians. Realize that in God’s eyes, every one of you who frames a wall in the name of God’s love is as important a theologian as St. Augustine; every one of you who hangs a window or paints a ceiling is as important a theologian as John Calvin; every one of you who makes and distributes lunches is as important a theologian as Karl Barth.

This week our Puerto Rico mission trip workers – our Puerto Rico gut theologians – have come back safe and sound, and now, we’re commissioning another group of people to go out from here to put right belief into right practice. In several weeks, we’re gong to host an event to highlight some of the many ways that all of us can be gut theologians, and a number of the sermons between now and then will highlight some of those ways, too. It’s important that in some way or another, each one of us finds a way to convert right belief into the more important right practice – to become a gut theologians ourselves. Out of gratitude for the grace and the love that God has poured upon all of us, we need to hear the wisdom of our heads, but to act based on the wisdom of our feelings. To do anything less would be… well, illogical.

Thanks be to God.

Coming and Going

(sermon 7/7/19 – Immigration Sunday)

go away doormat
Elisha’s doormat

2 Kings 5:1-14

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

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Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

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The prophet Elisha may not be the strangest person in the Bible, but he certainly ranks up there, which is impressive given just how relatively little the scriptures tell us about him. Unlike his mentor Elijah, who never seemed to be at a loss for words, Elisha actually didn’t say much. Most of the scriptural record of him focuses on supernatural miracles he performed – making oil mysteriously not run out, raising a boy from the dead, making an axe head float in water – usually without much conversation from him surrounding it. In one case, Elisha wanted to say something to a woman who’s been offering him hospitality in her home for years, so he has his personal assistant Gehazi bring the woman to him – in her own home – and while she’s standing there right in front of him, Elisha tells Gehazi, “Tell the woman…” what he wants to say, refusing to speak directly to her while she was standing right in front of him and must have been thinking “Well what am I, chopped liver?”

Another time, in maybe the most bizarre of Elisha stories, Elisha is being hounded by a large crowd of young boys who are teasing Elisha because he’s bald, so he summons two bears to come down out of the woods and maul 42 of the boys, indicating that Elisha had anger management issues, to put it mildly.

That’s all a long-winded way of making it clear that Elisha was not by any stretch of the imagination a people-person, and that sets the stage for the story we heard about him this morning. Naaman, a powerful, highly decorated, well respected five-star general in the army of the neighboring kingdom of Aram, hears that this odd little man of God in the Samaria – this backwater, the armpit of the universe by Naaman’s estimation, might be able to cure him of this ailment that he’s been suffering from for so long. So at least for a little while, he pushes down his substantial ego and goes to get an audience with  Elisha.

Of course, we heard that isn’t exactly how things played out. When Naaman and his entourage arrived at Elisha’s house, Elisha wouldn’t even agree to see this foreign bigshot in person. He sends out some unnamed lackey to tell Naaman to go jump in the lake, almost literally. Elisha instructed the lackey to tell Naaman to just go bathe in the Jordan River nearby, which in that location was likely muddy, and brackish, and hardly more than a large creek, something that looked like if you tried to bathe in it you’d probably come out dirtier than when you’d gone in. This was too much for Naaman’s ego, and he decides to go home, unhealed, until some of his people talk some sense into him. Finally, Naaman gives in, and does what he’s been told, and he ends up heading home healed and humbled, and all without Elisha ever having to debase himself by actually meeting Naaman.

There’s a bit of a reversal of this situation in today’s gospel reading. There, Jesus sends his disciples out to engage directly with people throughout the countryside, to heal the suffering and proclaim God’s good news, rather than waiting for them to come to them, as Naaman came to Elisha, to receive God’s blessings. When the disciples did this, and they return, they’re joyful as they tell Jesus all about what had happened, and their experiences. You can imagine the excitement in their voices. Clearly, this was a transformative experience for them, and you can almost hear them tell Jesus that most  often-heard comment made by people coming back from a mission trip, that they know they helped others, but they’d received so much more than what they’d given. I’m sure that when our group in Puerto Rico gets home, many of them will say the same thing.

That seems to be an important way that God works within us. We’re called to be compassionate toward others, to proclaim God’s good news of love for them, to be the face; the heart, hands, and feet of Christ to them – but at the same time, we experience God, we learn about God, we’re transformed by God, largely by coming into contact and relationship with them.  They have things to teach us – about them, about God, about ourselves. That act of being open to and receiving others seems, in fact, to possibly be the most important way that we grown in our faith and see God in the world.

So let’s think back, then, to that story of Elisha and Naaman. There are all sorts of things that a person could draw out of this story, but I suspect that more often than not, it’s told as a morality play in which the moral of the story is “Don’t be a Naaman” – don’t let our pride and ego get in the way of God working goodness in our lives. And that’s a good enough point, I guess, but today I want to suggest seeing the story from a different angle, one where the moral of the story might be “Don’t be an Elisha.” I imagine Elisha, sitting in his house after this encounter, feeling all smug and superior for having basically just phoned in Naaman’s healing, without ever having any actual personal contact with him. And in the midst of that feeling of superiority, I imagine Elisha passing by a mirror in his house, and stopping for a moment to look at himself in it; and as he’s looking into his own eyes he hears the voice of God saying “Really, Elisha? Do you know what you just missed? Do you really know everything about why I sent that man to meet you? Do you realy think you couldn’t possibly have anything to learn from him? Do you know what I’d had in mind for you, what I wanted you to learn through him, how I wanted to make you a better servant of mine, by meeting and talking with him? Really, Elisha?” And I imagine Elisha realizing what an opportunity he’d just missed, how he’d frustrated God’s good intentions for him, by not opening himself up to this other person, and suddenly, he couldn’t look into his own eyes anymore, and he quietly walked away.

This past week, we’ve been celebrating our American ideal of independence. This coming week, let’s also try to recognize and celebrate the interdependence that God has created us for, and designed us for, and continually is drawing us toward. Let’s be thankful for the good news that God loves us. And God loves and all the people that Jesus’ disciples helped. And God loves the Elishas of the world, and all the Naamans of the world. Let’s remember and be grateful for the truth that just as God uses us to transform the lives of others, God also uses those others, however we go to them or however they come to us, to transform us, too.

So whose life will you transform this week? And who will you allow to transform your own?

Thanks be to God.

Seeing God in Ward 5B

(sermon 6/23/19)

aids quilt

View of approximately half of the National Mall in Washington DC, displaying the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, started in 1987 to celebrate the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. Currently weighing over 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world. Each panel measures 3’x6′ and is made by loved ones of the victim. It currently occupies 1.3 million square feet, and can no longer be displayed in its entirety on the entire National Mall. It consists of more than 48,000 panels honoring more than 94,000 individuals. This is 14% of the total number of people who have died from AIDS in the United States alone.

1 Kings 19:1-15

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return; and on your way, go by way of the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

 

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Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

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Maybe you could think of today’s sermon as a play in four acts, with each act dealing with finding and experiencing God in surprising and unexpected circumstances. The first act was our reading from the First Book of Kings. There, we see the prophet Elijah, who’s on the run. He’s just publicly humiliated the prophets of the god Baal – the god worshiped by the evil queen, Jezebel. As if publicly humiliating these prophets wasn’t enough, Elijah also killed them all, which would seem to be a bit excessive to anyone, and it was certainly seen as excessive to Jezebel, who swore to capture Elijah and give him a taste of his own medicine. So Elijah did what any reasonable person would do if their life was in danger in their own country – he fled across the border. Feeling that the whole world was against him, he trekked all the way to Mt. Horeb – which most of us probably know better as Mt. Sinai, where Elijah knew God had appeared to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. Elijah knows the story: God appeared to Moses in a cloud, with thunder and lightning and wind and a loud booming voice – really, you know this; I know you’ve seen the movie. And Elijah has seen the movie, too, and so in the midst of his own crisis of faith, Elijah wanted to have a meeting with the boss now, too, as it were. He wanted to offer God a list of grievances and get some advice, and he figures this is the best place to find God. Well, as we heard, Elijah definitely got the big theatrics – wind, earthquake, fire – but ultimately, Elijah encounters God in a completely unexpected way – in the quiet. In the small, still voice, asking him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” along with the implied “Now quit complaining and get back to work.” Elijah encountered God in the way and place he least expected.

The second act in this play is our reading from Luke. Here, Jesus had gone to Capernaum, a favorite place of his and one that he knew well. On this particular trip, he got a request for help from a centurion in the Roman army. This man is essentially part of the muscle of the Roman Empire, imposing the Roman thumb on top of the local residents, keeping them in line and quiet and, most importantly, paying their taxes. By any measure, a Roman centurion wouldn’t ordinarily be seen as a friend of the townspeople, but apparently, this one was at least a bit different, having helped the people build a synagogue. So when the centurion seeks out Jesus’ help to heal a beloved slave who was near death, the townspeople told Jesus “Well, yes, he’s a Roman, but as Romans go he’s a decent one; you really should help him.” Of course, we heard about the centurion’s faith, the trust he placed in Jesus, telling Jesus he doesn’t even need to bother himself with coming all the way to the house. He trusted in Jesus’ power and authority such that he could just will the slave’s healing from wherever he was. And just as Elijah was shocked and surprised at how he experienced God’s presence, now Jesus was similarly shocked, seeing the presence of God so powerfully, and faith exhibited so strongly, and by a Gentile, a Roman occupier of all people. Incredible!

Scene three of this play takes place in much more recent times. Since today the Presbyterian Church recognizes World AIDS Awareness Sunday, this scene takes place in the mid-1980s, in and around Ward 5B of the San Francisco General Hospital. It was the first hospital ward dedicated to treating AIDS patients, even before it was even called AIDS, at the very beginning of the epidemic when very little was understood about the disease and when people were terrified, panicked. Into this scene, enter Ronnie. Ronnie was a gay man living in the Castro District of San Francisco. He had a slight build, and he dressed flamboyantly, and talked with a lisp and he had a limp wrist and his hips swished when he walked. Ronnie was basically a walking catalogue of all of the stereotypes that the general public had negatively held, assuming all gay people were like. Add to that the fact that Ronnie could be really nasty, catty, cynical, and frankly, even bitter – which was understandable, given the physical and emotional abuse that people had heaped upon him all his life. Unlike many gay men who could blend, who could pass as straight, passing was never an option for Ronnie. He couldn’t hide who he was, and he’d paid a heavy price for it. And Ronnie’s real hot button was religion. Mention God, or Jesus, or the Church to Ronnie and he would unload a barrage of profanity and obscenity on you like you’d never heard before, and he might even physically throw something at you. That was the result of being told his entire life by people inside the church that he was a terrible person, sinful pervert who was going to hell.

And then came AIDS. Ronnie started to see his friends and acquaintances getting sick – first just a couple, and then more, and then even more. It was maybe just a few dark blotches on their skin at first, but then they’d start losing weight, and a lot of weight, fast. They’d become gaunt, and weak, and over time blotches of Kaposi’s Sarcoma would cover their bodies, and still, no one really understood what was happening. At first, “gt was just called the “gay plague,” since it was predominantly, not exclusively but predominantly, appearing in the gay community. No one really knew what to do for them. A lot of people didn’t want to do anything for them, out of fear it was contagious and they’d get “it.” And frankly, a lot of other people didn’t want to help them simply because they were supposedly just a bunch of perverts who deserved to die anyway. It was God’s punishment and condemnation, according to Jerry Falwell and others.

Ronnie started to visit his sick friends and acquaintances in their homes – especially those whose families had long ago disowned them and even whose friends had now abandoned them; the ones who had no one else. Ronnie knew what it was like to be friendless and abandoned. Some of them he didn’t know well, if at all. Still, he helped them take their medications. He helped them eat, and get dressed, and get to the doctor’s. He bathed them, and he cleaned up after them after they’d lost control of their bodily functions. And when things got worse, and they always got worse, and they were admitted to Ward 5B, Ronnie spent hours visiting them there, too. He would bring them their trays when hospital orderlies refused to deliver food into the rooms, and he’d feed them when their skeletal arms were too weak to allow them to feed themselves. He listened to them when they could talk, even when their dementia caused them to speak nonsense, and he talked to them when he wasn’t even sure they could hear him. Ronnie actually had a remarkable singing voice, and sometimes he sang to them – maybe a Top 40 hit, or a disco favorite, or maybe a showtune. On a few occasions, when they’d asked him to, Ronnie even momentarily put aside his own hostility and sang some comforting old religious hymn that they’d both remembered from being in church as kids. Just as importantly as all that, Ronnie gave them the incredible gift of simple human touch. When others wouldn’t even come in the room, he held their hands, and stroked their cheeks, and brushed their hair, and in general let them know that someone cared. That they mattered. That even if everyone else in the world had abandoned them, there was still someone who loved them.

And when they died, and they always died – they always died, thirty or forty of his friends every single year – it was Ronnie who came up with the extra money the orderlies demanded just to their bodies; and it was him who fought and argued with funeral directors who refused to take the bodies, or who wanted to charge three or four or five times their normal fee to do so. And it was often Ronnie who ultimately got their box of ashes, too, because no one else would come to claim them. And it was him who spread their ashes out over someplace that had been special in their memories: out over a mountaintop, or into the sea, deep in a lush forest, and even a few times into the parking lot of their favorite dance club. And then, after that, he went back to Ward 5B and did it all over again.

Sometimes, you see the existence and the power and the holiness of God in the most surprising of people and situations. Even though he would have sworn at you if he’d heard you say it at the time, Ronnie was the very presence of God on Ward 5B.

Both of our Lectionary texts are reminders to us to always try to see the presence of God in the world. To be prepared to see the face of God in others, sometimes even in the people you might least expect it. In the Roman centurions of the world. In the Ronnies of the world

And that brings us to the fourth act. What is the fourth act of this play? Honestly, I don’t know yet. It’s up to you and me to write it, by way of our words and actionsover the course of this coming week, and all the weeks to follow – because you see, God doesn’t want us to just see God in unexpected places; we’re called to *be* God in unexpected places. Out of gratitude for the love that God has surrounded us with, to be the face of God, the face of Christ, to someone you encounter this week. Maybe someone completely different than you are, maybe someone you don’t even know well, or maybe someone you do know and frankly, you don’t even like, and you might think wouldn’t even appreciate the gesture. We live in very trying times, as you know, and we all need to see God’s presence in more of it. So this week, find some way to be the surprising encounter with God that *they* have this week. Elijah, and Jesus, and now even Ronnie, who is now enjoying the eternal reward that God had prepared for him before he was even born, would agree.

Thanks be to God.