By now I believe it is safe to say that you all know I love the Christmas season. Everywhere I turn I see reasons to celebrate… reasons to be thankful… reasons for gratitude. It is during such times that answering Psalm 148’s call to Praise God is easiest.
I suspect for many you, this Christmas season is a joyful one. Being only a week out from our own celebration of Christmas, most of us will probably find it easy to offer praise. And rightly so because when you get right down to it, we have so much to be thankful for. It is in such moments that Praising God comes rather easy I believe, most likely because all seems right with the world.
Yet I know there are people who find it difficult or even impossible to Praise God, especially during the holiday season. I think about my childhood friend who lost his Dad to a massive heart attack on Christmas morning some 5 years ago. A family for whom Christmas was the most anticipated time of the year, until that Christmas morning. I think about those who for the first time in their lives spent Christmas without certain loved ones. Their Christmas traditions of old now giving way to the start of new, unfamiliar ones.
These are the people I have thought about this past week as I was preparing to stand before you today and preach on Psalm148. How might those people hear this Psalm?
Praise the Lord? Tell me Pastor, how am I supposed to do that exactly? And while these conversations only took place in my head this year, I know they are real.
Although we have met a couple of times, I don’t personally know Rev. Ed Beddingfield, Senior Pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Buies Creek, NC on the campus at Campbell University. Before serving at Memorial he spent close to fifteen years serving FBC Fayetteville as their Senior Pastor. It was in Fayetteville that Ed and his wife Sarah raised their two daughters, Shannon and Megan, now adults with one serving as a missionary and the other completing her Ph.D. work. Sarah was a longtime educator having retired a few years ago.
Ed is one of my father-in-law’s best friends in ministry and it was that friendship that caused Mike to call Ed early Christmas morning after hearing about the tragedy the night before. Around 10:30 PM Christmas Eve, after completing the Candlelight Christmas Eve service at Memorial where he assured the congregation that God is with us even in times of great darkness, Ed, Sarah, Shannon and Megan, who were visiting their parents for the holiday, were home when the unthinkable happened… an explosion occurred, and the house was immediately engulfed in smoke and flames. Ed and Megan got out safely, but Shannon was badly burned and suffered tremendous smoke inhalation. Today she remains in the burn unit at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill. Ed’s beloved wife Sarah did not survive.
Amy and I found out about this on Christmas day and we have talked about it off and on ever since. Together, we relived parts of our own house fire, but as the week went on and I sat with this Psalm and the heartache I felt for the Beddingfield family, I couldn’t escape how difficult it is to Praise God in the midst of tragedy and how angry being asked to Praise God can make those who are grieving. Now I want you to know, I believe the difficulty and anger are justified and no matter what anyone says, I believe God understands and is OK with our inability to quickly move past such things. In fact, I don’t think God expects us to be able to move forward by ourselves. This seems to be a recurring theme throughout the entire Bible, God’s promise that we are never alone and that we never have to face the difficulties in life by ourselves. In fact, it is this communal understanding of life that opened my eyes to the Psalmist’s words. This Psalm is a communal call, not an individual call. Like most of life itself, the Praise of God is not my sole responsibility.
This Psalm calls all creation to Praise God for it was God who created and called all of creation to live in community. As for God’s people, the Psalm tells us God raised up a horn for them, which is best understood as God restoring the people to strength and dignity. So all of this should help us understand that praising God is not determined by how well things are going at the moment in our own lives or in the world. Praising God is more communal than that, because all creation is more communal than we sometimes act like. “The praise we offer to God is wholly determined by, dependent on, who God is and what God has done and is doing in the universe. Praising God is what we—along with the sun and moon, snow and wind, mountains and trees, creeping things and flying birds—are called to do.
There are seasons, Christmas included, in which it may not be easy to find a voice for praise. Sometimes the word or song of praise gets silenced by a lump in our throat, as though we have swallowed too much grief or sorrow or loneliness to utter a sound. Sometimes praise is no more than a whisper, because we are exhausted or afraid or ill. What happens when we ourselves are too sad or too weak to offer praise of God? This psalm exclaims the hopeful, comforting message that we are not isolated or alone in our vocation of praise. From start to finish, Psalm 148 places us within a vast, diverse universe where continual praise is being offered to God: Angels and stars, fire and frost, wild and domesticated animals, men and women, young and old, wealthy and poor… join in a symphony of praise. So, when our own song or spirit is silenced, praise still fills the space all around us. Psalm 148 offers hope that a time of personal darkness may just be the time we let the rest of creation praise God for us until we find our voice again.
This common vocation of praise is the source of our true interrelatedness to God, to one another, to the universe. Praise, then, is a gift that brings us out of isolation and into communion. Communion is what Christmas is most truly about: God’s desire to be at one with us. Psalm 148 gives voice for many to the joy experienced in this season. For others struggling through these days, Psalm 148 offers assurance that they are not left in isolation and silence in creation or in the community of faith.” (Kimberly L. Clayton, Feasting on the Word Commentary)
No matter what, we can’t always find it within ourselves to Praise God. Sometimes it just feels too dog on hard, and the truth of the matter is, sometimes it is too dog on hard. Sometimes we just need time to grieve and time to rest. This is where the Church comes in. This is where we live into the community God desires because this is where the Church as community will shine. I dare say this is why God wants the Church, for there is no greater task the Church can perform than helping a brother or a sister, or every other part of God’s beautiful creation, when they or it can’t help themselves.
When we fall victim to thinking we must do it all by ourselves, praising God can be too difficult. I believe the Psalmist recognizes this and maybe the lesson it is teaching is for us to recognize that there are times when our brothers and our sisters cannot praise God and it is in those times that we, the Church, must. Instead of beating people up or expecting them to praise God when they can’t, the Church must step up, without judgment, without shaming, and fulfill its role of praising God for them. You see, judging and shaming serve only to isolate and anger, but Praising, especially for those who can’t, can be the gift that overcomes the isolation. Praising can be the gift that brings light into darkness. Praising can be the gift of community.
There is no greater gift the Church can offer creation. So today we join all other parts of Creation whose voice Praises God. Today we Praise God with them, but today and every other day I want us to do more because we recognize that there are parts of creation who don’t or can’t find a voice to Praise. Today and every other day I want us to Praise God for all who can’t. Today and every other day I want us to Praise God for all who won’t. Today and every other day I want us to Praise God until they find their voice again and when that happens they join us. This is who we are called to be. This is the way the Church will shine brightly in a world that often seems dark. This is how we do our part in building God’s Kingdom for this is how we answer this universal calling for all of creation to Praise God.
December 3, 2017
The Christmas Season is a wonderful time of year. All around us people hustle about with a sense of excitement that they may not have during other parts of the year. In our Sacred spaces the Season doesn’t begin with Christmas, it begins with a time called Advent and as we find ourselves here again, hopefully we do so wide-eyed and ready to experience all that the Season has in store for us.
During Advent we are called first to prepare for the coming Christ. One way we prepare is by getting a room ready and in terms of getting rooms or our traveled spaces prepared, I would say we are pretty proficient. From shopping centers to our homes, preparation is either complete or well underway, and that is a great thing. Our levels of excitement seemed to grow exponentially when we enter this preparation phase, and again that is a great thing.
There is a second part of Advent, though, and it comes after the preparation for Advent calls us to wait. Now I don’t know about you, but I confess there are times when I can’t stand having to wait. It seems I can get wrapped up in this instant fix, instant gratification society just like anyone else that I start to believe we are wired in such a way that waiting is foreign to our very essence. The truth, though, is that waiting is something our species has done rather successfully since the beginning of time and Advent is a season partly meant to remind us that waiting is built into the very fabric of our existence.
Take agriculture for instance. In today’s scripture we read about learning lessons from the Fig Tree, and although we didn’t grow any figs this past year, we did grow other things and in doing so some of us learned a lot about preparation, waiting and watching. And while some were initially better at waiting for things to grow than I was, all of us kept our eyes open looking for signs of growth. We prepared the space and then waited and watched.
We’ve done something similar today in our Hanging of the Green service, haven’t we? We gathered together and prepared this room. So now we wait, but as we wait we are to keep watch. We are to wait with eyes open. We are to wait expectantly for we know Christ is coming.
As we wait, I wonder where we might look for God. Maybe that is actually the hardest part because unlike our growing of vegetables, knowing where to look for God isn’t always easy to figure out. And that, it seems, is at the heart of this section of Mark’s Gospel. It is here that Mark poses a timeless question, one that I believe is good for us as we begin the waiting and watching part of Advent:
Where will we look for God?
As we wait, both in our sacred spaces and our secular spaces, where will we look for God?
As we wait, especially in the midst of the chaos of our days, where will we look for God?
Prepare… Wait… Watch!
It is the rhythm of life and Advent reminds as much.
So, as we wait, may we do so with eyes wide open, knowing full well the Good News that Christ is Coming.
A Legacy Built on Giving
In 1993 a couple took a walk on the beach and began to share with each other the things that they believed mattered most in the world. This couple was engaged to be married, and even though they had discussed this topic a little during their years of dating, this walk on the beach was transformational for both. In fact, that walk and that discussion on that Zanzibar Beach proved to be transformational for millions of people.
What’s interesting is this is not the first time this couple had discussions like these… discussions about what they felt called to do with the wealth they had accumulated, and for them to have these type conversations before they were even married is rare to say the least. Not only that, the ultimate decisions they reached about what to do with their wealth were simply incredible. Their decisions served as the inspiration others needed to follow in their footsteps. And you want to know something, that seems to be the way generosity goes most of the time. Someone, or a couple who is respected by others, takes a step toward helping out those less fortunate and then others follow.
Well in this case, the couple making the decision to use their wealth for the benefit of others, for the benefit of society at large and the problems and injustices they face around the world just happened to be Bill & Melinda Gates. Now I’m not sure generosity toward others was always the plan for Bill, but he now admits that giving away his wealth for the benefit of those less fortunate in our world is the single greatest thing he has ever done. And it just so happens, a number of people believe there is only one reason Bill and Melinda Gates will be remembered when it is all said and done and it’s not because of Microsoft or Windows: it will be their decision to give away a large portion of their wealth to better the lives of others. It will not be the company he founded. [Let that sink in for a minute…] Their legacy will be built on their decision to give to charity, not on their decision to selfishly keep all they had been blessed with receiving. Their legacy will be:
One of philanthropy;
One of giving away a significant portion of their financial wealth to others less fortunate;
One of giving to those they do not personally know but are dealing with illnesses that are curable in our country but not theirs;
One of giving to aid the pursuit of justice for those dealing with injustices like lack of drinkable water, or lack of food.
These are the reasons some believe the World as a whole will remember Bill & Melinda Gates.
They gave selflessly, and even though they had and continue to have a lot to give, that fact should not cloud our view of how important giving back has been for them, and should be for us.
Apostle Paul & II Corinthians
The apostle Paul, it seems, knew something about the importance of giving a portion of your wealth to help others. Don’t you agree? The Apostle Paul also knew how important it was to allow people the time and space needed for them to voluntarily decide how much they would give to the Church, and how much they would keep for themselves. Just listen to his words, [v. 7] “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion…”
Do you wonder why Paul might encourage such contemplation? I venture to say Paul knew that compelling someone to do something they don’t want to do voluntarily is never the answer. And I suspect Paul knew this was never the approach of Jesus or God for that matter. Their approach to relationship building always centered on selfless giving. Forcing people, compelling people to do something they don’t want to do might bring shortsighted, short-lived success, but the long-term damage is extremely detrimental. Just look at the struggles of modern day Church attendance. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t believe part of the decline is due to the fact that so many people for so long felt forced into participation, or guilted into being present. As New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright says, “You may succeed [at getting people to do what you want even if they don’t]; if you’re a forceful enough character, [they] may eventually do what you want; but they won’t enjoy it, and you may damage some relationships on the way.”
Any and all attempts to forcefully compel anyone to give away their hard earned, or not so hard earned, money are never successful. That approach is never a God centered approach and quite frankly that approach just doesn’t work. What does work, is helping everyone “turn [their] minds and imaginations around so that what had seemed forced, awkward and unnatural now seems the most natural thing of all.”
This, I believe, is the best way to understand what the Apostle Paul is doing in today’s passage. I believe I have shared with you before, that all of Paul’s authentic letters need always to be read as letters of response sent to a certain group of people who were seeking Paul’s advice about specific issues they are facing. So, in this passage today, it is safe for us to say that the people of the early church at Corinth must have needed a little refresher on cheerfully and voluntarily giving a portion of their resources to those less fortunate. Fortunately, Paul, it seems, was always willing to respond to those advice seekers in the early church, and the people living in Corinth were no exception.
So when it comes to taking up the collection, Paul was ready, willing and able to help shed some light on why this was so very important to the Church as a whole, and this is because for Paul, the offering was about much more than money: it was about relationships in the church. Paul understood how important the act of giving was to those wanting to follow Jesus because in this act of giving we can overcome our slavery to possessions. We demonstrate that there are values in the world more important to us than our own selfish glorification. Giving in this way, let’s call it true giving, is an act of self-liberation. What Paul understood and what it appears he wanted to teach in this instance was not about money itself as much as it was about discipleship and grace. Paul doesn’t seem to be concerned about the Corinthians simply raising money, he wants them to change the way they think about money. He wants them to understand that God has graced them with certain things and when they choose to grace others with a portion of them, then they are living out God’s call for all to be Disciples.
More than anything else Paul seems to be reminding these early church members about the importance of building relationships with others and he wants them to know what role money can play in that building. As I am sure we all know, money can ruin relationships, but money can also build relationships. Here’s the thing, just like those early church members in Corinth, if we are going to answer God’s call, if we are going to follow Jesus’ teachings, then we must acknowledge the ways our choices about money play a part. We need to ask ourselves if our approach to money is an approach that embraces discipleship and grace, or is our approach more akin to survival of the fittest? Is our approach to money one that understands that living generously is what happens when your life is overflowing with grace?
You see, the invitation to give is an invitation to share in a cause and to participate in the outpouring of grace in our life and in the life of this church. The invitation to give is an invitation to stand tall and claim that you want to build relationships, not tear them down. The invitation to give is an invitation to acknowledge all the ways God has blessed you in your life and then extend that Grace to others.
Thing is, these are just some of the reasons we have extended such an invitation to the members of this church.
These are just some of the reasons we are so strongly encouraging you to take the time necessary to pray about how you will complete the Pledge Card you received in the mail.
Just like Paul, we are asking you to take the time necessary to reflect on all the ways you have received God’s Grace and once you have taken that time, ask yourself how much you really want to share that Grace with others. You see, that is what it means to give to the church… You are sharing a portion of the Grace God has freely given you with others.
The story of Bill and Melinda Gates on that Zanzibar beach is a story about how much of God’s Grace they decided to share, and while their decision has far reaching potential because of their net worth, your decision does too. Nowhere is it suggested that we must give like the Gates family. To suggest something so ludicrous would be just another attempt to focus only on money, and to focus on that is an incredible disservice. That was not Paul’s focus, that was not Jesus’ focus and I do not believe that has ever been God’s focus. Giving to the Church is about discipleship and grace. Giving to the church is about reaching beyond our physical boundaries to establish and care for relationships with others who find themselves less fortunate. Giving to the church is taking part in the lives of others and extending them a portion of the grace you have received.
Paul’s inclusion of a sower in this passage has me wondering one thing really. It is a question that I ask of myself and now it is one I ask you to do the same with. It is a question that must be honored by taking as much time as needed before answering. It is also a question which we must each answer on our own. The question is how are we sowing… richly or reluctantly? It is my prayer that we find it within ourselves to sow richly when we return our Commitment cards next week.
1 Chronicles 29:1-9, 14-17
October 22, 2017
“Look into the depths
OF ANOTHER’S SOUL
not only with our ears,
BUT WITH OUR HEARTS
and our silent love.”
This is a quote on the inside cover of a book my father-in-law loaned me awhile back. He had read it and thought I might like to read it as well. Now at the time this book could not be purchased in a bookstore, but rather amazingly all over the country small groups of people were reading it chapter by chapter and after each chapter coming together in someone’s house to discuss it. Although I was not part of such a group I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have since recommended it to many people.
This book titled, The Ultimate Gift was written by a man named Jim Stovall. Mr. Stovall, according to his bio, is a blind man who chose not to be defined by that particular trait. In fact, he became a national champion Olympic weightlifter, a successful investment broker, entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker. In addition, he is Co-Founder and President of the Narrative Television Network, which makes movies and television accessible for our nation's 13 million blind and visually impaired people and their families.
It was the role of Motivational Speaker that helped him come to a better understanding of what mattered most in his life. Wanting to be the best he could be in that role forced him to ask himself serious questions and then listen to that still small voice within us all for the answer. Now this is no small task, but I belief with every fiber of my being that anyone who stands before people to speak about life and provide a good word needs to spend as much time as they can asking these same questions and more time listening for the answer from that still small Voice.
So, Stovall did just that after years of reaching out to diverse audiences who wanted to know more about Stovall’s remarkable history. When he turned his ear toward his inner self, he says he went right to the heart of the values or gifts that rest within us all, and discovered the magical transformations that begin once we start to recognize and share these treasures. It was his recognition of these treasures that laid the foundation for this book and became the keys that continue to unlock incredible new hope, joy and meaning for individuals, families, schools and public-service organizations throughout the world.
The Ultimate Gift
So, Stovall’s way of teaching about these “Gifts” was through the fictional life of Red Stevens a self-made billionaire who gave his family everything and ruined them in the process. Following his death and as his estate of mega companies is divided among greedy and self-serving relatives, one member is singled out for a chance to do something special: his grandson Jason.
Jason thought his inheritance was going to be the gift of money and lots of it, but boy was he ever in for a big surprise. The story sends trust fund baby Jason on an improbable journey of discovery, having to answer the ultimate question: “What is the relationship between wealth and happiness?” Jason had a very simple relationship with his impossibly wealthy Grandfather, Howard “Red” Stevens. He hated him. No heart-to-heart talks, no warm fuzzies, just cold hard cash. So of course, he figured that when Red died, the whole “reading of the will” thing would be another simple cash transaction, that his Grandfather’s money would allow him to continue living in the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. But what Red left him was anything but simple as during his life, Red had devised a plan for Jason to experience a crash course on life. This crash course was made up of Twelve tasks, each of which would serve to teach Jason about the twelve gifts of life.
Before he died, Red recorded a series of video messages and asked his lawyer, Mr. Hamilton and his assistant Mrs. Hastings to share these videos with Jason over the following year. In the first video Red told Jason, “On the first of each month for the next year, you will meet with Mr. Hamilton and Ms. Hastings and they will give you one element of what I call The Ultimate Gift. If you stay the course over the next year, and embrace each element, in the end you will be the recipient of the most significant bequest I can leave you... Understand, if at any time you do not perform as indicated, or if you give Mr. Hamilton or Mrs. Hastings any undue amount of difficulty, I’ve instructed them to stop the process and leave you with nothing.”
One gift per month for the next twelve months doesn’t necessarily sound so bad, but these gifts, the gift of:
A DAY; and
required effort. These gifts were hard work because all Jason wanted was the money. He didn’t want his selfish life disrupted, and this was exactly what Red wanted Jason to overcome. Red knew once Jason accomplished all twelve tasks, Jason’s life would be transformed from a selfish money hungry egomaniac, to a selfless giver of all he had been blessed with. This, according to Re, is The Ultimate Gift; TRANSFORMATION!
I wonder if Jim Stovall, in coming to his own recognition of these twelve gifts of a life well lived knew something about the way the Chronicler wanted King David to be remembered. The Book of Chronicles as a whole, retells the story of the Israelite/Jewish people, briefly summarizing the history until the reign of King David, and then focusing on the reigns of David, Solomon and the later kings of Judea. (It largely omits any mention of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.) But Chronicles does not simply retell the narrative of the Davidic kings. Chronicles has its own particular view of Israel’s history to tell, in which particular events and groups are highlighted, while other events are de-emphasized.
It highlights the covenant between God and David, and describes David and his descendants as sitting “on the throne of the Lord.” King David and his son Solomon are idealized, and the period of their reign is described in glorious terms. The story of Solomon’s succession highlights this idealization: David is described as announcing to all of Israel that God has chosen Solomon as David’s successor. We see this in today’s passage, but equally important to our understanding of today’s passage is King David’s focus on glorifying God. Even in telling the whole assembly about Solomon’s forthcoming reign, David central focus is God and what he believed was most important in honoring God, the building of God’s Temple.
In his sharing with those assembled, David makes clear what his Kingdom had collected from its citizens and dedicated solely to the construction of God’s Temple, but he shares something else. Something a little more personal… David had become a very wealthy man, but his focus was not on himself as he was eager to glorify God, so he announced his decision to contribute his personal wealth to help in the task. David then appealed to all those people to do as he had done. So, he asked them to follow his lead and give themselves to the service of God. This means that they would give much of their accumulated wealth to God.
And you know something, the leaders responded by joyfully giving gifts. They wanted to give and they did so happily.
It seems to me, at least, that David knew the mission of glorifying God was a group mission.
This mission required the setting aside of selfish goals and selfish ambitions.
This mission was about selflessly giving something back in honor of the one who selflessly gave to you.
This mission was about The Ultimate Gift.
This mission was about Transformation.
David Randolph, a Methodist pastor in New York state, has offered a unique perspective on all of this. He says…
“The meaning of life is to receive life as a gift and to offer it back as a gift. It is as essential as breathing in and breathing out. How terrible it would be,” he says, “if we only breathed in, if we were only receivers, if we were only takers. We would soon become bloated and explode. Yes, we receive, but then we give. We breathe out. We share the gift that has been given to us.”
Yes, David cared for his people. Yes, David cared for Solomon and wanted the best for him, and` it seems David understood the way to achieve this for everyone was through the glorification of God because David knew this was God’s desire for God’s Beloved. According to the Chronicler, David understood how central giving back was to the accomplishing of this task, and he also knew it takes a village. This task is only accomplished in community. This task requires all of us because we are all God’s Beloved.
As it was for them, and as it was for the fictional Jason Stevens, the task continues for us today. Each and every one of us has something to give, and make no mistake it will take all of us. In fact, participation by all of us is the only way it can be accomplished because we were all created in God’s Divine image. In all of our uniqueness, we are all walking advertisements of a diverse and beautiful God who loves each and every one of us so much to bless us in ways we could not otherwise be blessed. And because we are first created in this Divine image of selflessly giving and loving, we are all capable of living this way.
This is at least part of what the Chronicler wanted us to know about King David.
This is the Ultimate Gift Red Stevens wanted to give his grandson Jason Stevens.
The gift of selflessly giving and selflessly loving.
The gift of Selflessly giving and selflessly loving is joyful
The gift of Selflessly giving and selflessly loving is transformational.
The gift of selflessly giving and selflessly loving is divine…
This ultimate gift is a gift all of us are called first to receive, and then we are called to give. May we receive when needed, and may we joyfully and graciously give. It is our call.
 Joye Kanelakos
 1 Chronicles 29:23
 1 Chronicles 28:5
 MGQ-SW-139, p.249
October 8, 2017
Private Club Membership
Most people do not know this about me, but I used to play golf. I would never say I was real serious about it, but I most definitely played and enjoyed doing so. More than playing, I loved watching the Master’s Tournament every year. There just seemed to be something about watching the drama unfold on that second Sunday of April and although there wasn’t much drama on the course on the final day of the 1997 Masters Tournament, Frank Urban “Fuzzy” Zoeller certainly provided all the drama and more than we needed when he finished his final round. As he walked off the course, he turned to the press corps and made a racist remark regarding Tiger Woods, who was certain of winning his first Major Championship. Only 21 years old at the time, that win at Augusta secured Tiger’s place in history as the youngest Master’s winner ever… a record that might one day be broken. That win also secured Tiger another record, one that will never be broken. You see, on that particular Sunday, Tiger became the first non-white winner of the Master’s Tournament.
It was that last record that prompted the racist comment from Fuzzy, who was already a full member of that extremely exclusive club thanks to his 1979 win. His membership in that club allowed him to know about the club’s traditions like the reigning champion’s right to choose the food at the Masters Champions Dinner the following year. So, after finishing tied for 34th place with a score of 78, Zoeller, referring to that following year’s Dinner, “He’s doing quite well, pretty impressive. That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well. He’s doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it.”
Zoeller then smiled, snapped his fingers, and walked away before turning and adding, “or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”
Some have been known to say that “It is a grim fact that [those] admitted to the Country Club typically becomes the loudest voice in making the case to keep out the next group seeking admission. After all, once you make it to the inside of a Members Only club, you want to savor your status. You see it as a key achievement, a notch in your belt, a feather in your cap, a sign that you are now really Somebody.
Then when certain types of people start to somehow get admitted into your Club, particularly such-and-such a group, then suddenly it’s as though your special status starts to feel diminished, watered down, less of a distinction than it had been. In this way it seems, the very purpose of having a club is to have barriers and walls around you to keep out . . . riff-raff and other undesirables. If you don’t have standards to bar certain people from admission, [like people who don’t know what kind of food is acceptable to the other Members], then what’s the sense of having a club to begin with?
This is human nature, I’m afraid. And it’s also the reason that when a religion starts to see itself as a club, it’s pretty much game over in terms of reflecting and incarnating the loving heart of God.”
So, what does Exclusive Club Membership have to do with Jesus, the Chief Priests and the Religious Leaders… I say EVERYTHING.
Proper Historical Context
In today’s passage we read a story found in the latter part of Matthew’s Gospel, where is Jesus again speaking with the Chief Priests and Religious Leaders. The reason he is speaking with them in the first place is because they continue questioning Jesus’ authority. Remember, they wanted desperately to “catch” him so that they could prosecute him. It is as though they are saying, “How dare he try to teach outsiders about the inner workings of our Exclusive Club.” This isn’t the first time they tested Jesus and just like those other times, Jesus uses the power of a Parable to make his point.
Did you know that this Parable is one of only three that appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, what we call the synoptic gospels? “Curiously, some of Jesus’ best-known parables (like the Good Samaritan) occur in one gospel alone. Only the parables of The Sower, The Mustard Seed, and The Tenants get repeated in all three New Testament Gospels.
So why this parable? Especially considering it is one of the lesser known parables. Why would the Gospel writers confer such importance to this parable?
Maybe it is because this Parable shows us how Jesus is shifting the focus from Israel alone, a small exclusive club, to the entire world. Maybe with this Parable Jesus is teaching yet again that the Kingdom of God is not a Kingdom built on rejection. Maybe with this Parable Jesus is teaching that this Kingdom is a Kingdom that is rightly Ordered. A Kingdom belonging to God and entrusted to, never owned by, God’s beloved.
Rejection & Right Ordering
This entire parable is not as much about leadership as it is about rejection. All throughout this Parable the Tenants reject, reject, reject. They reject everyone the far away Owner sends. First, it’s the Owner’s servants then the Owner’s own son. Harm, assault, even kill, but no matter what reject all who dare come to the vineyard.
The Tenants in this Parable appear to be experts at rejecting everyone. Outsiders and insiders who they deem unworthy of being in that place or being a part of their club. The thing is, their rejection doesn’t start when those first people show up, it actually begins with the Owner. The Tenants first reject their previously made arrangement with the Owner. Their agreement to tend to and care for the Owner’s Vineyard. Make no mistake, when they reject this previously made agreement, they are rejecting the Owner. This mindset of rejection sets up all the other ways the Tenants reject the servants and the son.
There is something altogether different about rejecting and wanting to kill his son because “In coming to reclaim what rightly belongs to his Father, the Son sets out to restore the world to its divinely created order. This restores wholeness to this broken situation, and it also provides a glimpse into what Jesus calls “the Kingdom of Heaven.” This glimpse is what God’s creation is supposed to look like.
But the restoration of God’s creation to what it is supposed to be is so difficult. That kind of restoration work always seems to meet opposition from those with a vested interest in the world’s brokenness. That kind of restoration work always seems to meet opposition from those who believe they are already a part of the “in crowd.” This is restoration work because the Owner first made an agreement with these Tenants, and the Tenants made the decision to reject or destroy that agreement. It is the Owner who now is looking for the agreement to be restored, but the Owner is now fully aware that the restoration will require an expanded search. It will require the opening of doors to those who have been kept out by the Tenants.
If we look closely at this passage then we will see that Jesus acknowledges this very thing. In his words he acknowledges that the Tenants were first chosen by the Owner and by making this acknowledgement he is honoring history itself and God’s choosing of Israel. In this Parable the Tenants are hired by the Owner to protect and maintain the vineyard. As much as we would like to point the finger at them and call them names, the truth of the matter is that they are not robbers tearing down the fence to steal. They were actually chosen to be there.
And this makes their failure all the more tragic because they have broken the Owner’s trust. They have improperly laid claim to that which does not rightfully belong to them. In this way, Jesus’ very point seems to be that the Chief Priests and the Religious Leaders have mistaken their leadership over Israel for ownership of Israel. Where the Chief Priests and Religious Leaders were charged with pointing Israel toward God had turned into them pointing her to themselves. This is why this Parable is not an indictment against Israel, or against the institution… it is an indictment against the ways God’s appointed leaders have rejected God and rejected society. And this is why this is a Parable about putting things in their proper order and caring for what has been entrusted to you instead of exercising dominion over it.
The tragedy lies not only in their selfish rebellion but in the blindness that rebellion produces. The Parable shows how the temple leaders have been entrusted by God and how they have rebelled against God, but can’t even see their own rebellion. What they know is that God has appointed them as leaders, and this Jesus has attacked their authority. What they know is that they have been admitted to the Club, and now Jesus is saying others are worthy of being admitted too and this threatens their position of power and as a result they cannot see--or have lost sight of--what God’s will for the world really is. This is why in their eyes Jesus’ ministry must be a scandal.
"The issue is not fundamentally one of leadership as much as it is one of rendering to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21). For anyone called by God to a particular ministry--namely everyone--there is the temptation to claim ownership of that ministry, to confuse service with entitlement. For us, the moment a sense of entitlement creeps into 'our' ministry is the moment we have closed ourselves off to what Jesus is doing in the world. In that scenario we no longer serve Jesus; we protect ourselves from him. In our blindness we proclaim, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance” (21: 38).'”
The tenants who turn on the vineyard’s owner were clearly the religious leaders of the day, and the moment you make that connection, it’s not difficult to see why these folks were so upset over what Jesus said. Jesus was clearly saying that the vineyard tenants claim of ownership and sense of entitlement were on the wrong side of history. Their approach to the Kingdom was off.
Here’s the thing, it takes faith to accept that. The problem with the Chief Priests and Religious Leaders of Israel in Jesus’ day is that they had long since given up on true faith. For all intents and purposes, they decided they could run God’s kingdom without God. And all throughout history, when God had tried to redirect them through the prophets, they ignored, battered, and sometimes killed those prophets. Their narrow-mindedness was so complete “they had concluded that unless someone said things that affirmed what they were already doing and believing, then that person could not represent God. ” It was this same narrow-mindedness that allowed them to so easily reject anyone who did not sing the party line.
And most importantly, whenever we religious types reach that point concerning our God, we need to recognize that we are not where God wants us. We have reached a point where we are attempting to exercise dominion and ownership over things only entrusted to our care. Ownership and control is not our job, nor has it ever been our calling.
Amy and I were watching an interview with the famed comedian Billy Crystal yesterday afternoon and something he said about the condition of our world struck me. When asked what he is concerned about the most, Crystal said, “you know I am 70 years old and I have four grandchildren, 14, 11, 8 & 4, and I look at them and I wonder what kind of world are we leaving for them.” The thing is, I have heard this very same question from many friends and clients over the years, but especially over the past couple of weeks. It is a haunting question and it is one I worry about too. It seems this question haunted Jesus too. Why else would he try so desperately to teach the Chief Priest and Religious Leaders about how deadly rejection would be to their lives? Why else would Jesus try so hard to teach them that God is Love and that we are all God’s Beloved?
It’s past time for those claiming to be the Church to live up to Jesus’ teaching. It’s past time for those claiming to be the Church to stop treating it like its an exclusive membership club where only the insiders know what people like to eat. It’s past time for those claiming to be the Church to begin truly caring for God’s creation instead of claiming ownership and operating with a sense of entitlement.
If the Church can claim this rightly ordered life, then we will do as the Lord’s Prayer directs… God’s will be done on EARTH as it is in Heaven. This is the kind of world we should be leaving each and every generation that follows.
 "Golfer says comments about Woods 'misconstrued'". CNN. April 21, 1997. Retrieved May 22, 2013.
 Driggers, Ira Brent, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=145
October 1, 2017
Over the past month, Amy & I have been drinking a lot of water. In fact, it is the only thing Amy & I have had to drink during that time. She & I chose to eat and drink cleanly for 30 days and I’m happy to say, our 30 days will be over this coming Thursday. That does not mean, however, that my consumption of water will stop and there is good reason for that.
Importance of Water
There are three things in this world that are essential to the continuing of life: oxygen, food and water. Take one of the three away and life as you know it will quickly change for the worse. Take water for instance, I came across an educational video on You Tube called, “What if you stopped drinking water?” and here is what I learned:
Our bodies are 65% water and that is where they want to stay;
Now all of that water:
Carries nutrients and hormones all throughout our body;
Regulates our body temperature;
Cushions our joints; and
Keeps our eyes moist.
How about our brain… Did you know our brain is constantly measuring water and sending us signals, like letting us know we are thirsty after a hot and sweaty day outside? The reason our brain cares so much is because when we get dehydrated, the brain is affected. When we are dehydrated, we may feel light-headed, and most likely our thoughts and responses are slower than normal. In fact, studies of the elderly found that many who presented as confused or lacking clarity are not suffering permanent memory loss, they are actually suffering from constant dehydration.
Now, all of that is what would happen if we just don’t get enough water, but what about being totally deprived of water. Well when we are totally deprived of water, our bodies will begin to shut down in 4 to 5 days. In those moments, it seems, there is only one question, will you have life or will you have death.
This is one reason why the cries of desperation are so loud when coming from someone in need of water they can drink. They are literally begging for their life when they are desperately crying out for the gift of water. Some may not like the sound, or the volume of voices begging for their life, but wouldn’t we all scream at the top of our lungs if we found ourselves living without water to drink? Wouldn’t we cry out as loudly as possible to our leaders… or to anyone we thought could help? Surely, we would.
Maybe this explains why only yesterday Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico said, “I will do what I never thought I was going to do. I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying… If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying…” You see, the people of Puerto Rico continue to wake up to a new world where clean drinking water is scarce and people are desperate. Their leaders are desperate. Here’s the thing, crying out… begging for life’s essentials is never, and should never be seen as “poor leadership.” It’s what people do when the question is life or death. It’s what the best leaders do when those they lead cannot cry out for themselves any longer.
It’s certainly what the Israelites did and its certainly what Moses did on their behalf. The question then becomes, how will those who hear the cries respond?
Israelites in the Wilderness
Just like last week, today’s text presents us with rich opportunities for thinking about who God is and how God responds to and provides for the people in a time of incredible anxiety and danger.
This is not the first time the Israelites have lacked for water. You may recall that only three days into their wilderness journey, they arrived at Marah and found the water too bitter to drink. They immediately complained to Moses, who called upon God who responded by providing a piece of wood, which, when thrown into the water made it drinkable (15:23-25a).
This is followed by their Manna exploration adventure we talked about last week. And then, is rather short order we get to Exodus 17, where the Israelites hit another bump in the road. For reasons we don’t know, they set up camp at Rephidim, a place where there is no water to drink. And like anyone deprived of water to drink, they begin complaining, but this time, the text tells us, their complaining is more intense than before because this time it includes quarreling. They say to Moses, “Give us water to drink” (17:2)… which causes Moses to accuse the people of testing Yahweh: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test Yahweh?” (17:2).
That last question is a pretty good question I think, even though far too often we are scared to approach God in such a way. Here’s the thing, when forming new relationships, both sides are tested and the relationship between Yahweh and the Israelites was only beginning. I know God had provided for them all along their wilderness journey, and I know how easy it is to sit here today and judge what appears to be their lack of understanding and believing, but to end the story in that place is highly unfair. There only frame of reference about how this God worked was being lived out in the real time of their daily lives, and so far, there had been some ups and some downs.
That doesn’t make them slow learners. That doesn’t mean they lack faith. It is not a sign that their faith is weak. There complaining about one of life’s essentials makes them human.
Perhaps this Exodus narrative is telling us a story about the relationship between the divine and human and how it is being worked out. There was the honeymoon immediately after God delivered them from physical enslavement, followed by some hard times where issues like trust and control surfaced and the relationship is tested.
One scholar says, “The people’s continuing doubt seems both to be about who is in charge (they still identify Moses as the one who brought them up out of Egypt, rather than Yahweh) and why they have been chosen. In Egypt, they were chosen by the Pharaoh for work (Exodus 1:11) and ultimately, for death (Exodus 1:16). They suspect that this is Moses’/God’s intention for them as well, for they wonder if they have been brought into the wilderness to die, to be killed, along with their children (their futures) and their livestock (their security).”
Their questions indicate that in their minds Yahweh has left Moses in charge and that Moses has become their new Pharaoh… someone to use them for labor and a way to gain glory. But unlike Pharaoh, each and every time they question, Moses turns to God and God delivers, and this time is no exception as God tells Moses to take the staff he used at the Nile River and to meet God on the rock at Horeb, from which water will flow when Moses strikes it with his staff.
Isn’t it interesting how in this story, God chooses to bring life out of what seems lifeless? God chooses water to flow from a rock… LIFE FROM THE LIFELESS! You see, whether coming out of Egypt or journeying through the wilderness, God will find ways to bring and sustain life in unexpected ways. The thing is, this isn’t all on God as this journey will require a certain amount of trust from the people, just like it did of the Israelites and Moses. This journey will require a willingness to put faith in a God who seems to go about the delivering of gifts in a different kind of way than expected.
What if all these tests Moses and God reference in Exodus are meant to teach people radical trust in a God who opposes hoarding, but is always present to respond to needs? What if the referencing of all these tests are meant to show us all the ways God has acted to make life flow from places of death? What if we saw their doubts and their quarreling as calling God to action? I wonder if this story would remain only a story about the Israelites, or would it become a story about them and us… a story about the ever-growing relationship between Divinity and Humanity.
God seems to respond with creativity when the people loudly protest. Maybe by continuing to push for justice and grace and mercy… Maybe by continuing to protest loudly for the essentials that sustain life, the people are teaching us that follow how important it is that we continue to shape God’s character just as God works to shape ours. This mutual testing, this relationship building, happening in the wilderness produces a people with an incredible faith, as well as an incredible counter-cultural God.
Are You Thirsty?
For me, the vital nature of water was never as clear as it was over two years ago as I drove home from a long intense three-day seminary class on Church Worship. Hours earlier I received an urgent message from my sister letting me know that my Dad was in an ambulance on his way to the hospital. It just so happened that another class I was taking during that summer school session required that I keep a journal and I want to read some of what I wrote.
July 21, 2015
… Ironically, last week I was under the impression that I was tired, but last week pales in comparison to my current state of affairs. As I left campus this past Saturday, July 18, 2015, following a three (3) day intensive study on Christian Worship, I drove straight to the emergency room of Annie Penn Hospital in Reidsville, North Carolina so that I could be present with my Dad who had been taken by ambulance earlier that morning. His trip in the ambulance was necessitated by his inability to eat, drink, walk and talk for the previous three (3) days.
Ironically, the severity of his dementia is not the reason he is lying in a hospital bed. Nor is the level of debilitation caused by his Parkinson’s disease. Neither are the number of times he has fallen (10 +) over the past week. He is here, and I am here with him, because of the lack of food and water.
This is why people who lack these essentials cry out, and when they can’t this is why those who love them should. Protest, quarrel if needed and never stop, especially when it comes to life’s essentials. Especially when it comes to justice, grace and mercy. In desperate times of need, this is what we are to do, and when we do it, we display the best attributes of history’s great leaders. When you are thirsty, when you feel abandoned, cry out, and may you know that when you cry out you are doing your part in continuing the shaping of the relationship between Divinity and Humanity.
 Erikson, Amy, workingpreacher.com Commentary
September 24, 2017
Sam Kinison & Hunger
The late Pentecostal Preacher turned stand-up comedian Sam Kinison’s star began to rise when he appeared on Rodney Dangerfield’s 9th Annual Young Comedians special. That comedy special initially aired in the summer of 1984 and my Dad and I loved spending time together watching the whole thing. At that particular time, one significant global issue was the brutal starvation of human beings in other parts of world. In fact, commercials began to air on US TV showing, rather vividly, these young emaciated people sitting in what can only be described as barren desert grabbing small morsels of something and eating them. I found these images difficult to watch, and I believe Kinison did too, yet one of his signature comedic story-lines centered on this very problem. He said, “I’m like anyone else on this planet – I’m very moved by world hunger. I see the same commercials, with those little kids, starving, and very depressed. I watch those kids and I go, “… I know the FILM crew could give this kid a sandwich!”
I will always have wonderful memories of time spent with my Dad watching this comedy special. Whenever I hear those famous lines from Kinison’s routine I am immediately taken back to those times. The older I get the more special it is for me to mentally go back in time like that. It wasn’t until just recently that I began looking past the humor of Kinison’s words so that I could more clearly see some of the truthful elements of a problematic and painful reality of our world… some people get to eat daily while some do not. Some people HAVE and some HAVE NOT!
Did you all know that today in the United States we waste about 50% more food than we did in the 1970’s? Did you know most studies consistently reveal that 30% – 40% of the food we produce in the United States is ultimately thrown away? In terms of actual weight, the EPA estimates this food waste weighs approximately 38 million tons, and for those of you who like to think about things in terms of dollars and cents, food waste is incredibly expensive as it is estimated this percentage is equal to $165 Billion being dumped in trash cans or dumpsters across the United States. If you are like me, these percentages, these numbers and this amount of money, which is literally thrown away annually, is both shocking and upsetting.
Now I want us to turn our attention to a concept called Food Insecurity. Maybe everyone here today understands this concept, but just in case someone doesn’t, Food Insecurity means someone whose “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.” For those liking a less technical definition we could just say people who are food insecure are “struggling to avoid being hungry.
A couple of months ago I was asked to come speak to the good people of Emerywood Baptist Church over in High Point and this past Wednesday I did just that. I was asked to talk about Food & Faith, so I put together a small presentation that touched the surface of what we discussed here at our place earlier this year. At one point in my talk, I surveyed the crowd, and recalled that the church was actually located on Country Club Drive, and that led me to conclude that food insecurity was not something experienced by many, or any of the people there that night. And, who knows, we that make up FBCJ are probably similar in that way. Here’s the thing, we don’t all have to experience something to know it is real, and even though there can be no substitute for personal experience, we need only open our eyes and take a look around the Triad to know that Food Insecurity is a real and present thing. I must tell you, I got the sense that many at Emerywood know this is real.
Now, my hope is that you all are a lot better at understanding things that don’t initially make sense than I am because I have a hard time understanding how the citizens of this country literally thrown away $165 Billion dollars of edible food each year while 1 in every 6 people in this country, or close to 50 million people are food insecure. My struggle to understand such things makes me want to know more, and hopefully some of you do to. Maybe I want to know more because I’m a fixer, a helper by nature, and when I see or learn about injustice my instinct is to jump in and offer whatever help I can. No matter what, we should all be able to agree that throwing away that amount of edible food when we have neighbors consumed with fear and anxiety because they are hungry on a daily basis is worth our time. In fact, if claiming to be followers of Christ and children of God, we should all step in and offer whatever help we can.
So, what might we say are some of the reasons this might be happening, and how might we choose to become part of the answer to this epidemic? Without knowing all the answers, it seems part of today’s passage gives us a clue.
Gather Enough for the Day
That clue, I believe, is found in v. 4 where earlier Jewel Miller read that God assured Moses that the needs of God’s people would be provided for, and in response God’s people shall gather enough for that day, but on the sixth day, God’s people were to gather double so that one day of each week they could rest. Gather enough for the day. No more, no less. Kingdom Economics.
Who better than the Israelites to understand the importance of only gathering enough to satisfy their daily needs? This is the same group of people who spent years as slaves to Pharaoh partly tasked with constructing enormous storehouses where God’s gifts of food could be stored and controlled by the few, instead of enjoyed by the masses. Such a system has always and will always result in scarcity for some, an overabundance for few, and loads and loads of trash.
Food shortages are never a God thing, because our God is a God of abundance. A selfless giver of gifts who always hears when anyone cries out in need. Food shortages are a man-made creation, whereby one with power over others wields it in such a way that others are left overwhelmed and under nourished. Food shortages are really man’s way of saying I’m concerned only about my own well-being and I will do everything in my power to accumulate all I can even if half of it is later thrown in the trash.
In such a system, needs are so easily forgotten.
In such a system, wants begin to masquerade as needs.
My friends, this is not how we live out our universal calling to love one another. This is not what God intended. This does not embody the words of my childhood dinner blessing where each night we sat together as a family and either my sister or I said:
“God is Great.
God is Good.
Let us thank him for our food.
By his hands we all are fed.
Give us Lord our Daily Bread.”
Those last words have never felt more powerful than they do when prayed alongside this story from Exodus. Give us Lord our DAILY BREAD! Not weekly! Not Monthly! Not Yearly! Anything more than that might actually deprive others, no matter if that was our intention or not. Gathering anything more that our daily needs might result in things spoiling before we actually need them. Gathering more than our daily needs require may in fact crush the thing we claim to be: people living together in community seeking to follow Christ. A people who claim to be the Church.
This Exodus story is describing a whole different kind of economics. It is describing Kingdom Economics.
It seems the concept of gathering only enough for the day is becoming harder and harder to understand. This wasn’t the case for my grandparents generation. Those WWII survivors who, after the war was over, never seemed to lose sight of what it looked like to live in fear of not having enough food. Even for those in that generation who later found some level of financial security, they never seemed to forget that part of their life’s experience. My Nanny Knight used to watch us grandkids spoon food onto our plates and when we were done make sure we knew whatever we spooned out we needed to consume. There would be no food waste in her house. There would be no food waste on that day because we were to spoon out only what we needed.
Maybe this was Nanny’s way of helping us grandkids understand what “Give us Lord our Daily Bread” is all about.
These ideas, these concepts should have never become a reality for anyone, much less rise to the level of an epidemic. God said as much. Gather your daily needs so that you become delivered from your selfish wants. Two weeks ago God delivered the Israelites from physical bondage. Last week God lovingly sought their deliverance from mental enslavement and this week we find God seeking to deliver God’s people from selfish desire of the kind of accumulation that deprives and enslaves others.
For most of us, I have to believe this type of deliverance is hard. Not because we are bad people, and not because we don’t want to “do the right thing.” It’s a little more complicated than that. You see, our cultural identity is one of individualism, capitalism and consumerism. This is why many scholars say “It’s almost impossible for an American to see colonization, capitalism, or consumerism as problematic. Our culture is built upon the idea that there’s not enough, that we must always seek more—at others’ expense. Lynne Twist calls this unconscious, unexamined assumption the “lie of scarcity.” ”
No one ever said listening and following God’s direction was going to be easy. Especially when things like food appear to be so plentiful in our self-created bubble worlds. Those same self-created bubble worlds that shape and form our understanding of how the whole world lives, even though reality does its best to paint a different picture. Maybe this helps explain why we tend to act like this type of deliverance, deliverance from our self-centered wants, is so hard when the truth of the matter is it’s the only way to be the Church.
Being the Church
There is another part to the Church story which needs to be shared even, and especially more than how difficult it all is… and that is how often and how much people do exemplify what it means to be the Church. When disasters strike, like Irma and Harvey, faith groups, Church groups, are always at the center of assisting the recovery of those in need. It is a beautiful thing to witness, and I suspect even more beautiful to receive. Then there are other, less headline generating ways, we live out what it means to be the Church. In fact, at 2:30 PM this afternoon a group of us will gather back at the Church and make the small journey over the FBC High Point to take part in a CROP Hunger Walk. The impact, both near and far, of the CROP Hunger walk ministry is legendary, even though it may not be widely known. CROP Hunger Walks are interfaith events that build community while raising funds to end hunger in our own community AND also
around the world.
We walk today as the FBCJ Team, but we also walk to be in solidarity with those who are hungry and those who can provide.
We walk to bring awareness to these issues and raise the funds for permanent change.
We walk because we love our neighbor.
We walk because we put UB4I!
We walk because maybe we are the film crew and Yes, Sam Kinison, we can give a sandwich to someone who is hungry.
 Rohr, Richard – Daily Meditation – Tuesday, September 19, 2017
September 17, 2017
I ran across a quote this week that really had me thinking. Someone named Craig Hamilton said, “it is possible to come into such profound alignment with the moral and spiritual axis of the universe that every moment of your life is a walk in grace and that you know without any doubt that you are in the right place at the right time.” I wonder how many of us have truly felt what Mr. Hamilton describes, and for those who have felt it, I wonder how deeply you desire to feel it again. I consider myself fortunate to know one person who has always modeled this for me, my step-father Tom Smith. Every day for him is full of gratitude and grace and it is a beautiful thing to witness. It encourages the rest of us.
I also know that life can have this way of taking the wind out of our sails, leaving us in a state of feeling trapped. And when we feel trapped, it seems, we only want what we used to have, no matter how bad that was. It is as though we forget how it really was, and when this happens you can forget even trying to move forward, because the only goal it seems is to just go back to what used to be because at least that was known.
Manchester by the Sea
At the beginning of this summer Amy & I made spending time together a priority and one of the things we did was add a bunch of movies to our Amazon Que so that we could watch them together. Each movie we watched was beautiful in its own way, and I believe all of them left us crying. By the way, if any of you are ever looking for a good cleansing cry then just ask Amy for the titles to some of these movies because they sure did open our floodgates.
Now one movie, Manchester By the Sea, was brutal and beautiful at the same time. It depicts the story of a man who was totally collapsed from trauma and simply could not re-enter life fully again. This man, Lee Chandler, is a broken man to say the least, and rather sadly he never experiences the full redemption that is possible, and while this might upset some people, the fact of the matter is that not everyone in life does experience full redemption, which should upset us. Unfortunately, people live alone, isolated, and beaten down, and sadly most of society is either too busy or too distracted or worse too apathetic to get involved. I, for one, truly believe we would all be better if we got involved.
Now, throughout this entire movie, Lee is hollowed out and collapsed, shoulders hunched, as though he is doing everything he can to protect his heart from further pain. This is a movie of an “everyman” whose tragedy and sorrow are bigger than his ability to cope, especially when he thinks he must cope alone. Lee’s wounds and heartache are all seen through details of his earlier lived trauma which has lead him to this place where he does not want to talk to people. Where he is now, simply, tragically existing, often without emotion and always not wanting to feel anything. This lived trauma happened years earlier, but Lee stop living and stopped experiencing life because of it, even to the point where late in the movie when you might think there is some light breaking through this dim existence, you hear Lee say, “I just can’t beat it!”
Now he is not talking about drugs or alcohol or any other kind of addiction in the way we understand addictions today. When Lee says he can’t beat it he is talking about the haunting memory of the night his house burned to the ground and his children died and his belief that it was all his fault. Lee became enslaved to his memory and his pain and no one and nothing could deliver him from it.
Exodus and its Themes
If you were here last week, or if you happened to read or listen to my sermon from last week, you know that we began talking about the Exodus story and its theme of Deliverance. You may even recall me saying that the Exodus, the great journey of the Hebrew people out of slavery and finally into the Promised Land, is an archetype of the interior spiritual journey from entrapment to liberation. It is, I believe, the universal story.
Today we continue that discussion and as we travel through the Book of Exodus over the next couple of weeks we will continue to discuss ways in which God seeks to Deliver God’s people from bondage, oppression and slavery. So, keeping the theme of deliverance and liberation at the forefront of our minds, I want us to read today’s passage from the mindset of the Israelites. In reading it this way it is my hope that we gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for all the ways they were needing God to deliver them. And then maybe, just maybe, we will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for all of the ways we ourselves need to be set free.
Being Set Free?
As Theologian Rob Bell says, “it is stories like these, found in the Bible, that have the power to transform the way you think and feel about everything.” It seems, though, that this power is only unleashed on those who get out of their own way and let stories like the Israelites deliverance wash over them and lead them to better understand themselves and their own need for deliverance. Make no mistake, you may not literally be a slave to an Egyptian Pharaoh, but that doesn’t mean you don’t know what it is like to be enslaved.
Physical bondage was only one aspect of the Israelites lives needing deliverance. You all know this story backwards and forwards I suspect and because you know the story so well, you know their story of deliverance is the same today and will be the same tomorrow. I wonder, though, how many ways you think the Israelites were captive and who was holding them in such a captive, oppressed state? Was their situation only about physical slavery? Was Pharaoh solely responsible for their enslavement?
Before we can answer that question we probably need to look at a few verses before verse 19, so listen now to verses 11-12, “11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
What is wrong with you Moses, can’t you see that we can’t beat this?
I have Mark Ashworth to thank for pointing something out to me about this story. This past Wednesday evening he and I were discussing where I was headed with my sermon and he said, “isn’t it amazing to think that by this point in their journey, they were no longer slaves in Egypt, yet they remained enslaved.” You see, physical slavery was only part of their enslaved life, for no longer were they physical slaves to Pharaoh, yet they wanted to go back to that life. How can that be? Why would anyone, once a slave and now free, desire to return to being a slave? Now I do not profess to know all of the reasons why, but I do believe the mind of a human being can serve to oppress and enslave us just like an actual slave master does.
At this point in the story, the Israelites no longer needed physical freedom, they needed freedom from the oppression of their minds. They needed to be delivered from the stronghold known as fear because fear had overtaken them as they journeyed in the wilderness. They needed to be delivered from their desire to return to the life they knew, because theirs was a desire for the familiar, not for freedom. Where their minds desired to trap them in the past, God desired to deliver them into a free future.
Father Richard Rohr says, “We get trapped in chains of guilt and low self-esteem…” and I believe he is right. It seems we get trapped there instead of reaching forward and embracing our own deliverance. We need always to remember that our job is to love others the way God has loved us. I believe most of us here have experienced God’s unearned love again and again. I believe most of us can say that God has persistently broken the rules to love us at the level we needed. God has persistently broken the rules to love us in a way we could receive. God has persistently broken the rules to love us in a way that we could understand. This is the reason each and every one of us can say the generous selfless nature of divine love keeps liberating us at deeper levels where we find ourselves still trapped.
FBC Jamestown’s History
Over the past few months, but especially this past week, I’ve taken some time to read about the history of our church, and this week in particular something stood out to me. Almost twenty years ago the wonderful people of this Church dedicated time to begin brainstorming about the church and what they would like to see. I want you to hear some of the things said:
Taking this small amount of time and dedicating it to reading about a portion of our Church’s history opened my eyes to many things, but one thing stuck out to me more than anything else this Church has been talking about the same issues for approximately twenty years. Now I’m not exactly sure why these issues have stayed around for so long, but isn’t it telling to discover that they have? At what point will we work through these issues and come out on the other side? Is there more that needs to be discussed about any of these issues before action can be taken? The kind of action that moves the church forward.
These are serious questions which deserve serious discussion and resolution, if this Church no longer desires to be enslaved to its past. Do you see that? For almost twenty years when it comes to certain issues the past has defined our present. I for one say no more. Today needs to be a new day. Today needs to be the first day of the new First Baptist Church of Jamestown, a church delivered from its slavery. A church liberated to become a community living out of its imagination.
Do any of us know for sure where we will go once we are freed from the bondage? The short answer is no, but don’t let our inability to know beforehand continue starve us from the mystery that is life.
Don’t let our inability to know everything about the future enslave us to the past.
Don’t let our inability to know beforehand lead us to only desire returning to our past.
Don’t let our inability to know all the details of the future deprive us from the joy that always comes when we experience the Grace & Mercy inherent in Deliverance.
Not knowing where we are going is not a death sentence, but continuing to be slaves to the ways things used to be done, or choosing not to participate in moving forward; or believing your only option is to return to your former enslavement, can be. The Israelites were furious with Moses as they journeyed through the wilderness. [vv. 11-12] “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians.” The Israelites didn’t need God to deliver them from physical slavery, they needed God to deliver them from their own mental enslavement, and there are times we do to.
So, the question for us is this, how are we going to get out of Egypt this year? God’s Grace and Mercy can deliver us. It is part of the universal story. No one ever said it would be easy, no one ever promised that we would know exactly what the future looked like before we arrived, but that should not keep us trapped. The Good news is that we don’t have to face it alone. We have each other, and unlike Lee Chandler, I truly believe we can beat today’s entrapment that has been caused by yesterday’s memories. In a recent article, my friend Dr. Bill Wilson of the Center for Healthy Churches asked churches this question, “will your life together be primarily shaped by your MEMORIES or by your IMAGINATION? ... Neither can exist in an appropriate way without the other.
However, the default position of the vast majority of congregations and parishes is to lean most heavily upon the familiar, the known, the former. Our imaginations grow weak from lack of use as we loop repeatedly back to what is comfortable and predictable.”
It is my prayer that we stop looping, so:
May we start living primarily out of our imagination;
May we pay homage to the memories and traditions without being trapped and enslaved by them; and
May we start the journey toward freedom knowing that God’s Grace & Mercy will be there to deliver us each and every step of the way!