Reconnect: Connect With Confidence

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 25, 2016
Taken from Romans 8: 15-23

 

So far in our time together, I don’t think I’ve imposed many woodworking stories on you.  Mainly, that’s because your eyes would glaze over within a few seconds of me starting.  But, at that risk, here’s a little something from the wood shop.

If you’re going to work with wood, you’ve got to get your head around how a tree grows.  Because, how the tree grows will determine how you’re going to work with the lumber that comes out of a particular tree.

Most of us have examined a tree stump, where the tree’s been cut cross-wise to reveal the tree rings.  We see the alternating bands of what’s call spring growth and summer growth.  We count those bands, and we add them up to get the age of the tree.

Imagine, though, if you cut that same tree not across it’s width but if you cut it up its length, so that you could open up that tree like a book.  Like reading a book, you could read the life of that tree in much more detail.

You would see the pith of the tree right at the very center.  You’re looking pretty much at the remnants of the sapling out of which this tree grew.  All along the pith you’d see where early branches grew out that sapling and then broke off.  Subsequent years of growth encased that old branch.  That’s how you end up with knots in the wood.  Along the way, you might find nails encased in the tree trunk or maybe even small bits of fence wire.

A few Wednesday nights ago, I showed folks photographs of a four-foot length of log I split down along its length.  But the two halves didn’t want to separate.  I assumed there might be a hidden knot that was refusing to break apart.  Turned out not to be a knot at all; it was this lag bolt.

I had to get a hacksaw and saw the shaft of the bolt in two before I could get the halves of the log apart.  The tree had grown and literally encased this lag-bolt.

One thing you’ll see in your log now split along its length is that the tree is made up of long fibers.  It’s like opening a box of spaghetti, right?  You open the box, take out the spaghetti, and you’re holding a fistful of spaghetti.  That’s what tree fibers are like; they’re like this bundle of long, thin fibers bound tightly together.  Except with this difference.  Those fibers are what we call the grain of the wood.

Your fistful of spaghetti you’re holding starts off rigid and stiff out of the box.  Then, you throw it into a pot full of boiling water and all the spaghetti gets very loose and flexible.  You can bend it and tie into knots if you want to; it’s not going to break.

That’s how those spaghetti-like tree fibers start out.  The tree fibers start off very wet and very flexible.  Haven’t you seen trees that have twisted themselves into unbelievable curves and bends trying to reach the sunlight?  I’ve seen trees that have twisted like a barber shop pole, doing what it had to do to stay alive.  Trees can do that because the new tree fibers are like wet strands of spaghetti as they’re being made and added to the tree.  They can do that, at least, while the tree is still relatively young.

Each year’s new set of fibers, though, eventually quits channeling water up through the tree.  They begin to fill up with resin and minerals and finally, they become rigid and become what we call “heartwood”, which is basically dead wood.

At a certain point, that mass of heartwood fixes the shape and direction of the tree so that it’s just not going to do anymore twisting and turning toward the sunlight.  Each new year’s new growth has to follow that shape and direction into which that mature tree is now forever fixed.

There is nothing you, as a woodworker, can do to change those wood fibers.  The shape and direction of the grain is fixed; the best you can do is learn the possibilities and the limitations of grain.  If the tree as a sapling twisted around as it grew, the wood fibers added in the following years are going to follow that twist come what may.

You can take a plank of wood out of that tree, and you can joint it and plane just as straight and flat as possible that morning.  Set it aside.  Before you get back from your lunch break, your nice plank will have started already twisting itself back to conform to its original, twisted growth.  That’s what that particular tree had to do if it was going to survive and to thrive in the setting in which it grew.

The setting of a tree’s growth—the circumstances of weather and soil, other vegetation surrounding that tree as it grew from seedling, to sapling, to mature tree—all those influences are literally ingrained into every fiber of that tree.

You and I are like those trees.  From seedling, to sapling, to mature tree, from birth, through childhood and adolescence, into mature adulthood, we embody not only the nutrients and liquids from which our bodies grew.  We embody the influences of all our circumstances, the fair weather and bad, the good actions of others and our own, the bad decisions of others and our own…all of it is ingrained within us.

We have grown, we have adapted, we have twisted and turned, we have each of us done what we must to survive and to thrive.  We have learned how to work with the grain of our lives to fashion the most useful, most functioning versions of ourselves that is humanly possible.

But, the somber assessment of the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is, the grain of our lives will not work, as is, for God’s purposes.  We are, as with that twisted lumber hewn from that twisted tree, determined to go our own way regardless of the Master Artisan’s design for us.

The Apostle Paul spends a fair part of the opening chapters of his letter to the Romans laying out that very sobering, very offensive, assessment of what we moderns would call “the human condition”.  Paul writes, of course, in terms of his own Jewish and Greco-Roman world.  He writes of Jew and Greek, or “gentile” as we would say.  He explores the values of each way of life—he lauds the Jews as heirs of the Covenant between God and Abraham; he acknowledges us Gentiles with our own inherent sensibilities of good and evil.

We strive to be the best versions of ourselves we know to be.  But, if we’re honest, we live within the limitations of our failings.  More than our failings, we live within the bounds of our own disregard for what we know to be right.  We seldom truly come to terms with the depths of the twists we have turned.  We forget the injuries encased deep within the rings of our years just as the maturing tree must encase the stubs of broken branches and injuries inflicted upon it if that tree is to continue to live.

Yet, all of it is there, if we could but cut our lives apart and read it like a book.  All of it lies within:  each subsequent year of our living, layer upon layer, ring added to ring, the living overlaid upon what once lived but now lies dead within, deep within, the heart, mind, soul and body of our lives.

Knowing this desperate predicament for all people, himself included, Paul cries out at end of chapter 7, verses 24 and 25, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  The answer to that question is what Paul knows in his own life:  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Why “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”?  Why?  That’s what Paul wants us as followers of Jesus to understand and get clear on:  what has God done now, through the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?

Let’s be clear here.  It is not God who crucified Jesus.  God did not crucify Jesus.  God called Jesus to follow as the Holy Spirit led Jesus and enabled Jesus to teach and to live a life that uniquely manifested the Kingdom of God on earth.  Jesus mission was to show what a life wholly dedicated to the way of God and the rule of God on this earth meant within this realm of God’s creation called “humanity”.

That’s what Jesus did.  Even into that Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed, “God, must this path lead here?  Isn’t there some other way to follow you and be spared what is to come if I persist on this path?”  Until he breathed his last tortured breath, Jesus never fell away.

Jesus simply followed God as the Spirit of God led him, to live and to love as God lives and loves.  Even as he hung, humiliated and crucified on a Roman cross, Jesus lived and loved until he literally had no life left with which to offer God’s love.  And in that moment of death, Jesus showed the full extent of God’s love for God’s creation.

It was the local agent of the Roman Empire who crucified Jesus.  It was religious leaders too closely entangled with that Empire who crucified Jesus.  It was, in other words, the way of this world that refused the way of life and love that is God’s life and love, that crucified Jesus.  To the extent that any of us chooses other than to live and to love as God lives and loves, we add our voice to the cries of the rabble:  crucify him!  crucify him!  crucify him and be done with him!

God did not crucify Jesus.  What God did, through God’s own Creative Holy Spirit, was raise Jesus from the dead.  Resurrection.  The world has the power to crucify; only God has the power to resurrect.  And, that is what God did, when God released from the tomb not a resuscitated corpse of the Jesus who once worked wood in Joseph’s workshop, but a resurrected embodied person fit to bear the fullness of God, incorruptible and eternal:  the unimaginable, the unforeseen, the Risen Christ Jesus.

To get back to our bent, curved and twisted tree:  imagine if were possible for that same tree to be pulled up by the roots and replanted out in an open field.  There in that open field, nothing overshadows it, choking out the sunlight, depriving it of water or nutrient.  Then, imagine if it were possible, over the days and months and years ahead, all those rigid, twisted, fibrous spaghetti-like strands of wood locked in place once again coming alive, water once again infusing every fiber of that tree, from the pith at its core, working its way outwards, layer by layer, ring by ring.

Imagine that tree once again able to flex and straighten up as any sapling ever could, an old tree set free once again to live in God’s full sunlight.  You would see a tree made over, to become what that species of tree could truly achieve as God intended it.

That is God’s salvation at work in you and in me and in all who choose no longer to follow the way of a world that crucified Jesus.  We instead, have chosen the way of Jesus.  We have chosen to way of the Crucified and Resurrected One.

Romans chapter 8, verse 12 reads, So, then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors—we are obligated, we have an I.O.U with God—no longer to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—that is, no longer to the way of the world that crucified Jesus—for if you live according to the flesh you will diePaul’s grammar there is emphatic, as if he’d underlined it twice in red:  live according to the way of the world that crucified Jesus, you will die!

When we had our family vacation out to Yosemite Park many years ago now, the first hike we made was up Vernal Falls.  It’s one of the many beautiful waterfalls you can hike alongside of.  At the top of Vernal Falls there is a railing to keep hikers from wading into the stream just above the Falls.  All along the railing there, the Park Service has posted signs that read, “If you cross this rail, you will die!”  That’s it!  Non-negotiable, “You.  Will.  Die!”

That’s how emphatic Paul is writing here in verse 12.  To live according to the flesh—again, Paul does not mean the human body; he means embodying the way of life that crucified Jesus, the way that kills us to the life and love of God—well, that is to choose death.

But, that’s not who we are, is it?  We have chosen the way of Jesus of Nazareth.  We have chosen the way of the life and love of the Eternal God as Jesus revealed that way.  In choosing to follow Jesus’ way, we responded to God’s Holy Spirit.  We received the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus to that unimaginable, unforeseen Christ-life.  We have that resurrection life working within us, to uproot us and transplant us, to change us and to transform us.

Again, to use the analogy of the tree, we have the Holy Spirit within us, rehydrating the fibers of our beings, so that what was dead and inflexible to God, may live once again; so that what’s locked into place like so much dead heartwood may be released to respond and realign with living heart-love of God.

I, as have many of you, have experienced the ministrations of a physical therapist – or, as a friend who is married to a physical therapist once described his wife, the physical terrorist.  The Holy Spirit is our Soul-Therapist.

It is a fearsome thing we do when we submit ourselves to the soul-therapy of God’s Holy Spirit.  It can be a painful thing we do as our Soul-Therapist lays hold on us, to stretch loose what has become bound, to break free what has become locked, to push us into an increasing range of soul movement, but it must happen!  How else can we keep up and keep pace with the Living Lord who commands us, “Come follow me!”?

It is God’s work in progress, in us.  It is what Paul refers to in verse 23 as the first fruits of the Spirit…as we wait for [our full] adoption as God’s children [that is] the redemption of our bodies.  Verse 24:  for in this hope we were saved.  It is in and toward that hope we are to live out our lives, in the here and now.

What’s really confounding is that apparently God has this same hope of redemption for all of the created universe.  That’s what verses 18 -23 describes.  Now, I am not going to pretend to know what Paul is talking about here.  The words he uses describe the material, created universe of trees and bees and birds and stars and black holes.

The best I can say is this:  it takes more than two teams to make a baseball game.  It also takes a baseball diamond with an infield and an outfield on which to have a baseball game.  This created order is the really big baseball park in which God is hosting this glorious game.  In fact, it seems to be moving at about the same speed as the typical baseball game.

Whatever Paul means in those verses, he is striking a parallel between the spiritual work God is doing within our own material, bodily life, and what God is doing in the material life of creation.

At the very least, verses 19-22 should lead us as followers of Christ to seriously question those who so encumber this creation that it cannot realize the purpose and potential God intended for this physical earth.

As a congregation gathered in the name of Jesus, our first work of salvation is to worship God.  Our other big work is to join God in our efforts and our prayers and our encouragement, to learn how to live and to love as Jesus lived and loved.

Well, that didn’t work out so well for Jesus, did it now?  Doing that got him crucified.  Yes, and doing that also got Jesus resurrected.  That is our community; we are a community daily being crucified to this world’s way so that daily we may be resurrected into the way of Christ’s own eternal life.  This is at its heart our common purpose and life together as a church.

We help each shake off all the ways the world would yet command us and shape us and twist us in its efforts to keep Jesus crucified and dead.  We help each other to shake loose that enslavement, to unlearn, to untwist and to unshape ourselves from that bondage to death.  We help each other to be reformed into the life of the Resurrected One.

This is our confidence that the Lord whose call we have answered will one day fully answer us, saying,“Well done!  Well done, my sister! Well done, my brother!”  All we hope for in Christ now, all will be realized in Christ then.

 

 

 

 

Reconnect: Connect With Community – Life in an Elephant Monastery

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 18, 2016
Taken from Acts 2:42-47

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A fable about the days when Jesus walked the roads of Palestine, preaching and healing.  Two men, who once were blind but now healed by the Lord, encounter each other.  They begin sharing their experiences of Jesus, and as they talked they soon discovered this common bond between them of the Lord restoring their sight.

The one said to the other, “It was so strange…I heard our Lord stoop down in front of me and then spit and a moment later he was anointing my eyes with the mud he’d made of the dust and spittle and when I washed away the mud I received back my sight!  It was amazing!  What did you think when Jesus started putting that mud on your eyes?”
The other man said, “What do you mean?  The Lord never even touched me.  He just said, ‘Your faith has made you well!’, and suddenly I could see.”

The first man protested, “No…the best way to be healed of blindness is with mud!”  The second man said, “No!  The best way to be healed of blindness does not require mud; it is by faith alone!”

The two men quickly got into a shouting match with each other and there was shoving and then there was an all-out fist fight.  And that’s how the Mudites and the Non-Mudites got started.1

Sadly, that is pretty close to the truth about church-life at times, isn’t it?.   How could this once-stellar movement among the followers of Jesus, as Acts describes it, end up splitting off into this group and that group and another group and on and on?  Certainly, that is not what this thing we call ‘going to church’ is supposed to be about?

It is a stellar moment in the life of the gathered followers of Jesus.  Jesus restored his Apostles.  They’d selected one new apostle to replace Judas Iscariot who by this time is dead.  They select Matthias, who like themselves, had been a follower of Jesus from the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, right up through the horrible crucifixion and then the glorious resurrection and those forty days of teaching by the Resurrected Lord before the Lord Jesus returned into that Divine dimension hidden from human sight.

About 120 men and women, Luke tells us in Acts chapter 1, verse 15, gathered in prayer, expecting some kind of intervention from God, praying for that intervention from God.  And, what an intervening moment it was!  Starting with the second chapter, Luke describes the outpouring of God’s own Spirit upon men, women, young, and old, all empowered to witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Seemingly overnight, their numbers break the bounds of all expectation, as Jews gathered from across the Roman Empire for Passover there in Jerusalem, heard and believed this new thing God was now doing among them.  As verse 41, just before our Scripture this morning, describes, about three thousand souls were baptized into the Way of Jesus.

These verses printed in the worship bulletin sum up for us, the incredible bonding together of these Palestinian Jews and Jews of many other nationalities and languages in these early days of the Jesus movement.   The locals welcomed the pilgrims to stay in their homes and share in their meals; daily, they all would meet up in the large public square there on the temple grounds to hear more and more about Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.  What is this Kingdom of God?

When I last visited my 85-year old father, he took me for a drive out to large tract of land to show me a site he’d put a deposit on.  It was a new development that promises to offer him the kind of home he can better manage at his age and health.  Of course the developer has a printed prospectus showing the various floor plans, the street layout, the clubhouse, the amenities.

The only thing my Dad objects to in the developer’s plans is this:  there are group mailboxes.  Dad insists, he’s gotta have his own mailbox at the end of his own driveway.  It’s not exactly a deal-breaker; he went ahead and put down his deposit.  But, he told me his plan to negotiate his personal exception to the rules the developer laid out in the prospectus.

That’s often what we today think Jesus was doing when Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God.  It was not!  Jesus was not handing out brochures about some future divine real estate development.  I know, when Jesus used his King James English, he promised, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.”  (John 14:2)

I once had a lady royally dress me up and down when I quoted Jesus using his Revised Standard English wherein Jesus says instead, “In my Father’s house are many rooms….”, not “mansions”.  For her, John 14, verse 2, in the King James Version, was a kind of prospectus:  Jesus promised her a mansion would be waiting and a mansion it has to be when she gets to heaven.

When Jesus preached this Kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus meant as in now, on this earth, and here is what you are to expect and how you are to live with each other.  That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” etcetera, etcetera, Amen.   That “Amen” means, “Make it so, God!  Make it so!”

These Apostles preached it that way; these people heard it that way; they received that news for what it was…it’s Good News!  The Kingdom of God is here!  And, so, they made it so!  They began reformatting their lives around the ethics of the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught, instead of the ethics of the assorted kingdoms from which they’d come to Jerusalem.

NPR ran an interesting set of reports this past week on a church up in New Jersey that’s resettling a Syrian family.   The family had been in a refugee camp, totally uprooted from their home in Syria.  The father is blind and bears profound facial injuries because of a mortar round that killed his extended family.

Members of the New Jersey congregation are teaching them English, teaching them to drive, teaching the father how to navigate using a white cane and other skills he’ll need to be independent, teaching them skills any typical American household already knows how to do.  They are learning the new ethos, the new ethics, of how to live American.2

These first century believers, they needed to learn the new ethos, the new ethics, of how to live together in the Kingdom of God.  And, they were doing it!  As verse 42 describes, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship….” because they were all refugees of a sort.

They’ve been resettled by the Holy Spirit of God, transformed and transferred by the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ, into a new land, among a new people, in a whole new realm of being and doing, a sacred place called the Kingdom of God.

Everything looked the same:  Jerusalem looked to be the same city, the Temple grounds were laid out as they’d always been, the same High Priest still ruled over the Temple, the same Roman Governor ruled over Palestine.  The market places and the thoroughfares, all of it was the same.

But these people?  They were not the same ever again.  Something more than the happenstance of time and place and citizenship had seized their devotion, something far more glorious than the eye could behold had seized their imaginations, a different agenda now demanded their loyalty.  The Kingdom of God had come among them.

The Kingdom of God had taken hold of them, and they took hold of it, and they did that by taking hold of one another.

Has the Kingdom of God taken hold of you?  Do you now live other than what circumstances of time and place and citizenship would dictate?  Has a sight far more glorious than your eyes can see, a sight far beyond your vocabulary to describe, entered into your soul?  In other words, has the Kingdom of God laid hold of you?  If so, why haven’t you laid hold of it?  How can you hold back?

How can you not take hold of one another?  Don’t you know the truth that we all are refugees now?  How do we speak the language of the Kingdom of God?  How do we navigate its streets and walkways?  Do you know its ethos and its ethics?  Where do we go to find our sisters and brothers that we might gather with them in celebration of our new heritage?

It is in this community gathered in the name of the Risen Lord, drawn in by the Spirit of God, inspired and eager to devote ourselves to Apostles’ teaching and to the care and encouragement for one another.

As it was for these of whom Acts chapter 2, verses 42-47, tells us.  So it continued for them, until they began living a different story.  When the fable of the Mudites and the Non-Mudites began crowding out the truth of Jesus among them.

Too many times, in my experience of church, and perhaps in your own, it seems to boil down to folks who once seemed to love each other in Christian love ending up fighting over differences that really just miss the whole point of church.  Kinda like our fabled fore-bearers, the Mudites and the Non-Mudites.

As I shared with you in my letter a few weeks ago, by Spring of 2003, I just had to get out of church-life altogether, for a lot of reasons, including the Mudite vs Non-Mudite sorts of stuff.  I moved to the northern California coastal town of Fort Bragg.  There, I entered what I’m calling today, “Life in the Elephant Monastery”.

I had been accepted into the fine furniture program at the College of the Redwoods.   But what the program really was, was a shop that the College had built in 1981 out on the edge of town to entice James Krenov to leave Sweden and come to America to teach his unique aesthetic and technique of woodworking.

By this time in his life, Krenov was 61 years old and had been practicing his craft for many, many years there in Stockholm.  Gradually, word had spread among woodworkers far beyond Sweden about this diminutive furniture maker, his elegant though seemingly simple designs, and his unique aesthetic.

In 1976, Krenov wrote a book about his manner of work, which was quickly followed by two other books in 1977 and 1979.  I, like so many others, stumbled across those works in our local libraries and bookstores.  We became devotees, inspired by the man and his manner of craftsmanship, which really seemed to be more a manner of seeing life itself.

One writer in a 2007 article described the Krenov shop in Fort Bragg this way:  “This isn’t so much a school where you learn a certain set of skills, it is more like spending a year in a monastery where you learn to think and act like the master.”  Yep, that pretty much sums it up.

Twenty-three students and a few instructors, sharing close quarters from 8 AM to 5 PM, six days a week, every week, from August of one year to May of the next.  We did get a short week for Thanksgiving and a week for Christmas.

The master, Mr. Krenov, had retired the year before I arrived, but he would still wander through the shop, eyeing our work, usually without comment and then leave.  All of us students at some point made pilgrimage out to visit Mr. Krenov in his home studio, to get a few words of encouragement from him.

The school’s emblem is an elephant-head with two chisels crossed just below the head.  Why an elephant is a story for another time.  But, every Friday night, without fail, we held what was called “the Elephant Stomp”.

Late Friday afternoon, while we cleaned up the shop at end of the workday on, two students would go around collecting money from each of us and go into town to buy dinner supplies for that night’s Elephant Stomp.  Someone would go build a fire in the fire-pit out next to shop.

Slowly, over the next couple of hours, former students and other craftspeople would gather along with us around the fire.  People would bring casseroles and dishes of all sorts and drinks to share in a common meal.

We’d go long into the night, eating and gabbing and talking shop.  People would wander over to rotate in and out of a nonstop volleyball game that was always in progress.  Groups of four or five would form circles for a quick game of hackey-sack.  Students would occasionally bring out a mockup of a furniture piece they’d labored over and toss it on the fire and everyone would cheer as it went up in flames.

So would go the Elephant Stomp, late into the night, every Friday night.  The last person to leave would make sure the fire was safely out and then go home.  Then, all of us would come straggling back in the next morning at 8:00 AM and put another day.

This was not in any way a Christian community; it was a Krenovian community.  But, in the years following my experience there in the Elephant Monastery, I realized, though Christian community it was not, it was a community of God’s healing grace for me.

I discovered, again, what it was like to be welcomed and valued by a group of strangers for no other reason than a shared experience of discovering a teacher from whom we wished to learn a different way.

Meeting daily, we encouraged one another as we attended to the teaching of those few whom the master himself had trained.  Weekly, we shared a common meal and cared for one another and played together.

As you might imagine, we sometimes aggravated each other, but surprisingly, we never argued.  What aggravations arose, quickly dissipated.  We never undermined or sabotaged each other’s work.  We celebrated our successes together, and we sympathized over the set-backs we all experienced.

Regardless of what the week had held, we gathered ourselves around that fire pit every Friday night for the weekly Elephant Stomp.  We wouldn’t miss that.

What bound us together through the year came down to this:  we knew a privilege had been given us, to share in the work of learning and aspiring to the qualities of a master we’d each discovered.  You don’t easily let go or get dissuaded from keeping your place in so great a gathering into which we’d been welcomed.

Why in the world, would any of those same dynamics of community be other or less for us who’ve come to know our Teacher and Master, Jesus, the Risen Christ?

If you need to re-connect with the Community of the Risen Savior, find your way to do that.   Keep at it.  I hope you’ll do that here, with this particular Christian community called University Baptist Church.  And, we, University Baptist Church, in whatever ways we need to re-connect as a congregation to the way of these first followers in Acts, chapter 2, let’s keep at it.  It is our sacred calling.

 

1 quoted in Martin Marty, Context, July 1, 1991, p. 5.

2 http://www.npr.org/2016/09/14/493881290/n-j-church-group-to-resettle-syrian-refugee-family-with-special-needs

Reconnect: Connect With Christ

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 11, 2016
Taken from John 21:15-25

 

Do most of you have Facebook accounts?  Show of hands?  Karen and I got Facebook accounts when our kids, Thomas and Emily, went off to college, our thought being, “What a great way to keep up with them!”  So, Thomas and Emily faced that horrifying moment when they realized Mom and Dad had just sent them a friend request.

A few weeks went by in our new venture with “the Facebook” when I myself started getting friend requests.  What amazed me was that these were my high school classmates, most of whom I had not seen since that day we had graduated together way back in June of 1973.  Somehow, through the magic of Facebook wizards, they had tracked me down and wanted to get back in touch.

I looked at their profile pictures and I thought, “My goodness…what happened to you people?!  You look…old…I mean, like really, really old…like, grandparent old, some of them!  Then, what came next was really disturbing:  they hadn’t seen me in several decades either.  What if I look as old to them as they look to me?

Now, that will mess with your head.  That will send you running to look in the bathroom mirror…could it be true?

Of course, there really is only one good way to avoid that shock to the psyche, other than just staying in hiding:  which would have been for me to have stayed in touch with these friends across the decades.  As we went through our own early years, as we stumbled around through our 20s trying to figure out what we really were going to be when we grew up and romances and failures and marriages and children getting born and all the rest.

Then they wouldn’t be these “old people” who suddenly appeared out the blue onto my computer screen.  They would simply be friends whom I had just seen the other day or the other week.  They would all be current friends, and we would have real-time relationships.

Which is true for us with God.  In matters of the soul, it’s all about sustaining a real-time, present relationship with the Divine, as in any other personal relationship.  We know that.

We all have ways of experiencing God:  the ocean or the mountains, for example.  We could go through an endless cataloguing of all in this vast universe that may speak to us of God.  But, surprisingly, somehow, at some time, we came upon God’s own Self, because God desired that meeting with us.  God desires to have that which is most personal and most intimate with us.  For us as Christians, this is the Gospel taught and lived in Jesus of Nazareth, over 2,000 years ago, and that continues in this present moment of our lives.

Jesus’ first followers discovered the truth of that Divine encounter when Jesus first met them by the Sea of Galilee.  Among them were Peter and John.  It is these same two, Peter and John, to whom Jesus goes on this day which our Gospel reading this morning describes.  Much as Jesus first called Peter and John those few years ago by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus once again, by that very same Sea, calls out to them to come follow him.

But, with this difference:  a lot of water has gone under the bridge and over the dam.  The call continued to be the same, yes, but neither Peter nor John were the same men whom Jesus first encountered by that Sea.  They have aged far more than the passing of a few years might suggest for them.

Consider what has happened as Jesus comes to them now.  Jesus is coming to restore them as his followers, but restoration implies that something has happened, doesn’t it?  Restoration implies that something broken that requires mending.  Peter and John require mending because they have suffered a great violence, and they have sustained deep wounds because of following Jesus.

There’s all kinds of violence that we may experience.  There’s physical violence, of course.  When we suffer physical violence, we know it, don’t we?  We usually have a pretty good idea about how the violence came upon us.  Whether it was intentional or accidental:  it usually comes by way of another person.

There’s what we might call unanswerable violence.  It’s usually physical but there’s no apparent culprit who we can pin it on.  There’s no conceivable rationale for it.  A lot of the time we just end up saying of unanswerable violence, well, it was an “act of God”, or, well, “God had His reasons.”

Then, there’s a third kind of violence, which we might call “psychic violence”, but which I do not mean palm reading or clairvoyance.  I mean violence inflicted upon the human psyche…our minds, our emotions, our souls.  As with all violence, psychic violence may be sudden or it may be gradual and chronic.  Sometimes we know its source, but often psychic violence confounds us.  We can’t say how or why this came, but we know, we have suffered wounds and we bear scars.

Peter and John have suffered violence in these few years they have followed Jesus.  Sometimes we say, “No good deed goes unpunished!”?  So true for Peter and John.  All they’ve done is follow a man who taught a message of love and compassion and hope and healed people…what could possibly go wrong with that?  Who could possible punish people for doing that?

Peter and John never saw it coming.  In these recent weeks, they and the others have just barely escaped an early and cruel death, but Jesus was not as fortunate.  They got Jesus, and they crucified him.

The “they” in this case, were Peter and John’s own religious authorities, of all people!  The folks who were supposed to be leaders of all things godly and good; it was they who had conspired with the local Roman ruler.  The High Priest and the Roman Governor had gone back and forth but finally decided it would really be best for all concerned if they went ahead and killed Jesus and then got on with life.

So, they arrested Jesus, ran him through a series of show trials, and then they executed him.  That’s some brutal physical violence, and at this point at least, it was unanswerable violence.  It most definitely was profound psychic violence, for which Peter and John and the other followers of Jesus were totally unprepared.

What they were most unprepared for though, was this:  Jesus did nothing to stop it.  He didn’t try to escape even though he knew by supper time earlier that night that somebody had betrayed him.  He didn’t put up a fight when the temple soldiers came to arrest him.  He just let it happen.

How could Jesus do that to Peter and John?  How could Jesus be so reckless, putting himself and his closest followers in danger that way?  If he didn’t care enough to put up a fight, if he didn’t at least have the good sense to run away and come back to fight another day, then why should they care anymore?

So deeply wounded were Peter and John and the others, that even after God raised Jesus from the dead and Jesus had appeared to them on that third day, and all the Happy Easter hoopla, they still labored under this burden:  the close-call with physical violence; the unanswerable nature of it; the deep psychic shock in them.  They would be cautious to take up with Jesus, even with a Risen Jesus this time around.

You know, no rope I’ve ever seen was made up of a single strand of fiber.  Ropes are woven of many strands, all inter-twined.  You start pulling out one strand, you’re going to have deal with the others, too.

I’ve talked about three kinds of violence and the injuries they cause us as though they’re three separate strands in our lives, hanging off in isolation from each other.  We know that’s not true.  It’s real plain to us that physical and unanswerable violence inflict violence on our psyches.

What’s not so plain is how psychic injury affects us physically.  But, we are of a whole piece of human cloth all woven in intricate ways in body, mind, heart, and soul.  If I were really mischievous, I would illustrate my point by telling you about how I stepped into a nest of chiggers while hiking in the woods back in June.

If I were mischievous, I would describe how I got home and later that night started feeling distinct spots of intense itching.  I would tell you about how I examined my legs and waist and suddenly spotted those little buggers digging under my skin.  And I would guess that about then, many of us would literally discover ourselves itching and so much wanting to scratch.  But, I wouldn’t do such a thing to you folks, but consider how what is in the mind finds its way out into the body.

Patiently, Jesus comes again and again and again to Peter, John, and the others.  As he’d first met them by the Sea of Galilee, he meets them once again.  He’s prepares a meal to share with them, as he’d shared so many meals with them, right up to that last supper just before he was arrested.  Jesus speaks to Peter first.

Three times, Jesus allows Peter to profess his love for Jesus.  Persistently, Jesus asks, do you love me?  With equal persistence, Peter says, yes, Lord, I love you.  It’s as if Jesus is allowing Peter to erase one by one by one those three curses which Peter had shamefully denounced against Jesus only days before.  Jesus, of course, is restoring Peter.

That’s what we need to understand:  violence is about us and life on this earth, restoration is about God and the life God desires for us on this earth.  We commit violence against one another, whether intentional or accidental.  Unanswerable violence comes:  that is its own particular horror.  That psychic violence…it’s all of us, we who inflict it and we who suffer from it.  We receive violence, and we mete it out; we bear wounds, and we wound others right back.  We do it in our homes.  We do it at work.  We do it in church.

But, restoration…that’s what God is all about, and restoration is what God want us as God’s people to be about with God in this world.  The root meaning of the word “salvation” is healing.  God is all about healing us and healing this earth.  God begins within and keeps on working healing outwards.  No, it will not be complete in this present realm of space and time, but it sure can started and even get pretty far along in even the worst places and worst moments of this life.

This is Jesus, the sacred healer who walked among his fellow Jews in ancient Palestine.  Jesus, himself healed three days after receiving wounds which killed him.  Jesus, who lives within us and among us, this Jesus who comes again and again and again, to restore us to himself and to God.

By verse 20, Peter finally perks up, all good to go it seems, ready to take up with following Jesus, when Peter notices John following off a ways behind them.  Jesus has had nothing to say to John.  No three-fold interrogation…do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?  No instructions issued to John as with Peter.  Not even the command, “Follow me”, does Jesus give to John.

What’s up with that?  Peter wonders.  In verse 20, Peter looks back at John, and then Peter looks at Jesus, and says, “Uh, Lord, what’s up with John?  You got something you need to say to him?  Hmm?”

Jesus replies in verse 22.  Verse 23 repeats it just to make sure we hear it right along with Peter.  Jesus answers Peter, “What’s it to you, Peter?  That’s between him and me.  You know what I want of you, though, don’t you?  Come follow me!”

That’s a mistake we Christians so often make.  We might assume that our experience of Jesus is what somebody else’s experience of Jesus must be, too.  That may be what Peter is saying, and Jesus is vetoing.

Or, conversely—and what’s more likely—we may think that because someone else’s experience of Jesus is different than ours, then their experience must be better and more correct than ours, so we discount our own way of knowing the Lord.

That has always been the constant bugaboo in my own spiritual experience.  There have always been some other Christians whom I’ve admired and looked up to and to whom I’ve deferred because I was experiencing God somewhat differently at the time.

When I was 26 years old and getting ready to go to seminary, I came across a book with such a silly title that I almost didn’t bother getting it off the shelf.  The title was, On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear:  Spirituality American Style.  The cover illustration was a cartoon bear, with gossamer wings coming out of its back, flying over a field of flowers and playing a toy drum.  Very odd.

But, I went for it and began reading it, and it truly began to speak to me, about prayer and contemplation and the long tradition of Christian mysticism.  Nothing I’d grown up knowing about, so somewhat odd but interesting.

Well, in my church was a married couple about my age.  They were good friends whom I really looked up to as spiritual mentors.  They had invited me over to their house for dinner about that time.  And, at some point after dinner I began telling the woman about this book.

And she looked at me with this stunned look on her face that I can still see, and she said, “oh, Gary, you don’t really believe that about God, do you?”  I answer, “Oh, no, of course not!”  So, I went home that night and put the Musical, Mystical Bear book on my shelf, never opened again and eventually lost it.

Over the years, there were other books that reach out to me in similar ways.  When I was in my mid-forties, one such book was by a Catholic theologian named Matthew Fox, called Original Blessing.  It’s a book I came back to as I moved through my fifties, and is probably a significant part of why I continue as a follower of Christ today.

A little over a month ago, I read that Mathew Fox had published his autobiography, so I ordered it and it’s what I’m reading right now.  I reached the part where Fox talks about writing his doctoral dissertation and then how he eventually found a publisher for it.  So, young Matthew Fox published his very first book.  Care to guess what its title was?  On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear:  Spirituality American Style.  Ouch.

What God perhaps was trying to start in me when I was 26, I deferred from another two decades.  All because I deferred to someone else who in effect said to me what Peter was saying to Jesus about John:  Lord, what you’re doing now with me…certainly, that’s what you want for John, too, isn’t it?  Jesus tells Peter, you let me and John work out what’s right for John following me.  As for you, you follow me!

None of us escapes unscathed in this life, neither in body, mind, or soul.  But, we know this hope, don’t we?  God welcomes us into God’s own Divine Presence within us.  God’s healing Spirit always works at restoring us, and it is always a work in progress.  It’s a work that requires us to participate with God, as real-time, real-life disciples of the Lord Jesus.

How that gets literally fleshed out in you or in me does not have to look the same.  We are not meant to defer to one another in ways that delay our spiritual progress.  Most certainly, we are not meant to suppress one another as Peter seemed to be angling to do with John.

We encourage one another.  We share of our testimonies of our own experiences with one another.  Most importantly, we help one another learn how to listen to the Lord’s leading in each of our lives.  We help one another, and we help this world, find that sacred restoration which is of God.

The Family We Choose

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 4, 2016
Taken from Mark 3: 19b-21, 31-35

 

The Smothers Brothers provide some of my best memories of TV from the late 1960s and early 70s.  Tom and Dick Smothers were a comedy folk-music duo, and they were actual brothers.  Tommy played guitar; Dickie played the upright bass.  Dickie was confident and articulate.  Tommy was uncertain of himself, easily flustered, but most of all, Tommy was a prankster.

They’d begin their routine by playing traditional folk ballads.  Without fail, a couple of songs in, Tommy would start slipping in some new words to throw off Dickie.  Dickie would stop, and with great disdain, ask Tommy, “What do you think you’re doing?”  Tommy would try to be sly and funny, but Dickie wouldn’t let Tommy get away with anything.

Dickie would just keep badgering Tommy. Why had he thrown in those new words?  What did he mean to say?  How did he think that made Dickie feel? And on and on he’d hammer away until he had Tommy backed into a corner.

Finally, Tommy would angrily strike out, “Oh, yeah?  Well, Mom always liked you best!”  And Dickie would strike right back, “That’s right, Tommy!  And you know why?  You know why Mom liked me best?  It’s because of stuff just like this!”  That would be the end of that little spat.

They would start singing another song until Tommy couldn’t help himself, and he’d sing or say something that would set Dickie off again.

I suppose in every sibling rivalry there always comes that awful suspicion that your parents like your brother or your sister better than they like you.  Well, imagine that sibling rivalry when your older brother is Jesus, the Christ!  You couldn’t even use the most basic retort: “Oh, yeah, like you’re so perfect!”  Because, he was.

Jesus had siblings, brothers and sisters.  Mark here in chapter 3 mentions Jesus’ brothers.  Later on in chapter 6, Mark adds that Jesus had sisters. (Mark 6:3).  There was sibling rivalry.  John chapter 7, verses 1-9, describe an incident when Jesus’ brothers actually start taunting their older brother about his ministry.

Later generations in the church will argue over whether these other children were born to Mary or if they were Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage.  But that was not the Gospel writers’ concern.

Their point was simply to let us know that Jesus came from a large family; that he had brothers and sisters.  And, at some point, Jesus took the surprising step of leaving his family.  It was surprising, and it was contrary to what was expected of him in that time and place as the elder brother.

By this time, Joseph is probably dead.  Jesus is the eldest son.  He is responsible for the care of his widowed mother and his family.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  He left behind his family to become an itinerant preacher.

These verses in Mark chapter 3 illustrate just how baffled Jesus’ family has become over his behavior.  These are the early days of Jesus’ public ministry.  He is stirring up the crowds with his preaching and with his inexplicable power of healing.  The religious authorities have begun to denounce him as being possessed of the devil. (Mark 3:22).

Jesus’ brothers decide they must intervene; clearly, something has gone terribly wrong with their older brother.  They must take the difficult step of pulling Jesus back into their care, for his own good, for the sake of the family, for the sake of their mother, Mary.

But Jesus will have no part of it.  More than that, he publicly renounces them as his family.  Jesus is in this house, jammed full with the Twelve Disciples and with as many other people as could squeeze in around them.  The crowd standing outside the house yell to the crowd packed inside the house, “Tell Jesus, ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.’

That’s when Jesus makes the break with Mary and his brothers and sisters.  He replies, basically saying, “I don’t know who those people out there may be because,” and he pauses to look around him, “here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  What a truly bizarre thing for Jesus to say.

Mark recounts this painful incident where Jesus breaks with his own family, why?  Well, he’s sure not doing it to offer us ‘Four Steps to Improving Family Communication’ or some such family-enrichment sermon.  This is not a “fix your family” text.

Instead, Mark in this text and the one just before it conveys to us how Jesus radically redefined and expanded the boundaries of what it means to be the people of God.

Now, I’m just gonna do a quick download of Bible information.  We don’t want to rush the Lord’s Supper this morning.  But there’s something I want to point out that you have done, and it’s going to take a little more background, so I’m just going to lay it out there in summary fashion.

Before this incident between Jesus and his family, Jesus goes up on a mountain and appoints the Twelve Apostles.  The Twelve are to be with Jesus, to learn and witness of all that Jesus will say and do, and then Jesus is going to send them out with his authority to preach and to heal.

Why go up on a mountain to appoint the Twelve?  Why not appoint them down by the Sea of Galilee?  Does it matter that Jesus went up on a mountain?  Does it matter that Jesus chose twelve?  Why not ten or thirteen or nine Apostles?

Jesus goes up on a mountain for this reason: long ago, when God made covenant with the Israelites, God called Moses to go up on a mountain to get the terms of that covenant.  We know them as the Ten Commandments, basically.

God, now in Jesus, was redefining that covenant; that’s the religious significance Jesus going up on top a mountain to appoint the Twelve.  He’s mirroring Moses on Mt. Sinai.  So, that’s quick Bible download #1.

Quick Bible download #2 is why Jesus chooses Twelve apostles and not ten or thirteen or any other number.  Jesus does that to mirror the twelve tribal patriarchs, the twelve sons of Jacob.  Participating in God’s revised Covenant is no longer based on the Patriarchs; it’s based on Jesus.  It’s based on hearing and believing the teaching that will be conveyed through the Twelve Apostles.  That’s what we understand to be our twenty-seven books we call the New Testament.

Can any of us trace our physical lineage back to one of the Twelve Apostles?  No, we cannot.  And, it doesn’t matter.  The Christian faith is not a patriarchal faith.  The Christian faith is a testimonial faith.

Let me say that again:  the Christian faith is a testimonial faith.  It is the testimony of this present generation of believers, based on the testimony of an earlier generation of believers, all the way back to the testimonies of these twelve whom Jesus chose that day up on that mountain.

To make sure you and I get that message, Mark then immediately turns to describe this incident with Jesus’ natural family.  Jesus explicitly rejects the notion of any relationship to him based on the physical descent of patriarchy.  For Jesus, who are the members of his family?  It’s not his brothers and sisters by way of Joseph; it’s not by his mother, Mary.  It’s the new, faith family gathered around Jesus.

Now, notice something here with me in verse 35.  Jesus looks around and says, whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.  Well, that’s fine, but someone’s missing?  The father’s missing.  Jesus mentions a mother, but there’s no father in the group of men and women.

In that day and time, who’s in charge if the father’s absent?  The elder brother.  So, where’s the elder brother in this new family that Jesus describes in verse 35?  Somebody’s got to be the elder brother.

There are no elder brothers, plural, in the family of Christ, because Jesus does not delegate that title to anyone.  Jesus alone gets to be elder brother in this faith family.  Who is the father in the family of Christ?  There are no fathers, plural, in the family of Christ because we are taught God alone is our Father.

These two texts describe the foundational moments when Jesus lays out the basis for his community.  It is a covenantal community no longer based on patriarchal lineage but based instead on testimonial lineage.  We belong to this family of God, based on our testimony of our personal experience with Jesus Christ and on nothing else.

In other words, the community of Jesus is a family where no one gets “to wear the pants in the family”…all family members are on equal standing; gender does not signify authority; it only signifies gender.  There are no ruling fathers or elder brothers in the community of Christ.

Now, finally, I can get around to talking with you about what you are doing, first by observing what you have done in the past: you have welcomed women into the ordained ministry of this church as deacons.  You have ordained women to the vocational Gospel ministry and sent them out to serve in various places.

This seems like no particularly exceptional thing for you to do, which is as it should be.  The fact these are ordained women means only that: they are deacons or ordained clergy who are women.  We can discuss their gifts, their skills, their experience, but gender is no longer part of the conversation at University Baptist.

You now have an active Senior Minister Search Committee.  You have told them, go find the right person for this congregation.  The right person whom God calls and whose call you, in turn, recognize…that call you will know by their gifts, their education and skills, their testimony, and their experience as an ordained clergy person.  But what about their gender?

What are your expectations of the next Senior Minister’s gender?  I am not in the position to tell you the “should” or the “should not”, of that person’s gender.  But I do want to lay before you the implications of Jesus’ teaching as it applies to gender-specific roles within the community of Christ.  Which is, as I read it, there are no gender-specific roles.

What I say next, I say only out of my own guessing, and nothing else.  At this juncture in the interim, I feel like I should point something out.  If I had to guess, I would say the unspoken assumption among most of us is that the next Senior Minister will be a man.  That’s only my guess.

If that’s true for you personally, that the next Senior Minister must be a man, at least articulate that expectation to yourself and examine it.

Examine your own gender assumption in the light of this church’s practice of ordaining women.  Examine your assumption in the light of how Jesus chose his family of faith.

This congregation’s next Senior Minister may indeed be a man and perhaps should be a man.  But, it is equally true, the next Senior Minister may be a woman and should be a woman, perhaps.

Wow.  That’s something to think about, and to pray on, to prepare yourselves to examine whomever, based on their calling, and gifting, and experience, and all the rest that has nothing at all to do with gender.

Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, August 21, 2016
Taken from Genesis 16:1-5; 21:1-14

I so very much wish I could claim today’s sermon title as my own, but I can’t.  I’m taking it from Lewis Grizzard’s 1989 book, which he entitled Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.1  And, in fact, Lewis Grizzard wasn’t feeling so well himself when he wrote this book.  He was having some serious heart valve problems that would lead to his death just a few years after this book came out.

In this collection of essays, Lewis Grizzard tells of the day in August, 1977, he and some buddies were relaxing at the beach when the report comes over the radio:  Elvis Presley is dead.  They can’t believe it.  Elvis Presley can’t be dead; how can Elvis be dead?  The King is only 42 years old.  But, there it was:  Elvis was dead.

For Lewis Grizzard, Elvis stood for everything good in his own coming of age and early manhood.  Elvis was greased-back duck-tailed hairdos; Elvis was the wild gyrating exuberant dance of life; Elvis was the exploding expanse of America that was the first wave of the Babyboomers.

The Babyboomer Generation started with the children born in 1946, which was the year Grizzard was born.  So, for Grizzard, growing up through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, those were his prime years of discovering the world and himself in the world.  Those were the prime Elvis years, when he was the King of rock n’ roll, and nothing could stop him or anybody else of that age.

Those also happened to be the great, seemingly unstoppable years in white American Protestantism, from 1946 on through the 1950s and into the early 1960s.  We Baptists had our own version of Elvis, didn’t we?  We had Billy Graham!

Oh my goodness, I remember as a child, when Billy Graham did a quick swing through Martinsville, where we lived at the time.  It wasn’t a revival crusade.  Billy Graham was just passing through the area.  It was more of a preacher news conference.  Some local pastors had organized it out on the parking lot of one of the car dealerships heading out of town over towards Collinsville.  It was like Elvis had shown up among us Baptists!  What a glorious day, when Billy Graham came through town.

It was a glorious couple of decades.  Eisenhower was President, the interstate highway system was getting built.  Levitt and Sons were putting up that tract housing that would turn into the modern suburb.  Willie Nelson didn’t have a pony-tail or an earring yet.  Elvis was king of rock n’ roll.

Then, November, 1963, it all started going sideways, didn’t it?  Oswald assassinated President Kennedy; four months later, in February, 1964, Ed Sullivan introduced the country to the Beatles; new President Johnson decided to up the ante in Vietnam; Elvis Presley began making really tacky movies and gaining weight.  And, finally, one fine August day in 1977, Lewis Grizzard and his buddies were at the beach and heard the news:  Elvis Presley is dead.  From Grizzard’s perspective, his life began a downward slide, until his own death in 1994, at the age of 47.

We’re going to come back to this chronology of events in the 1950s and early 1960s.  But, for the moment, I’d like us just to think about this notion, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.”  For you grammarians, I know, Grizzard should have written, “I don’t feel so WELL myself”, but after all he was a Georgia Bulldog, so, we’ll let it slide for now.

‘Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.’  You ever resonate with that sentiment?  I’m pretty sure that old Abraham and Sarah resonated with that sentiment, frequently.  Genesis chapters 12 through chapters 25 are all about Abraham and Sarah struggling mightily with certain physical limitations, and I not talking about Abraham’s hearing or Sarah’s eyesight.

So, at this point in the sermon, let me suggest to our teenagers, you just may want to tune out for the next few minutes.  If you’ve got your earbuds with you, this might be a good time to stick them in your ears.

Because, to talk honestly about today’s Scripture lesson, I’ve got to talk about procreation among folks the age of your grandparents and maybe even your great grandparents, if you have those.  And, I’m just not sure your tender, young psyches are ready to consider this possibility.  I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come out again.

Genesis chapters 12 through 25—the heart of the Book of Genesis—these chapters in a nutshell are all about Abram and Sarai and the journey they take up and down and back and forth across the land of Canaan, because God called them out to do that.  God’s call to Abram and Sarai, as we saw last Sunday, was based on this single promise from God found in Genesis 12, verses 1 and 2:  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…[Canaan].  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…[to]…all the families of the earth.”

So, this whole journey is based on this one premise, that this couple, Abram and Sarai, who are presently childless, will procreate!  Their baby, in turn, will be the first of countless descendants, descendants numbering as many as the stars in the night sky, God tells Abram at one point.  That, basically, is Genesis chapters 12 through 25: two old people traipsing through the wilderness, often trying but without success, to make a baby.

Genesis 12 tells us that Abram was already 75 years old when he hears God make this promise.  Now, he must have been a very vigorous old man to hear that and think to himself, “Yeah, I can see how that would work…come on, Sarai, let’s go!”  Sarai, we will learn later, is 10 years younger than Abram, so she’s 65 years old, and she says, “Sure, why not? I’m only 65…let’s get ‘er done!”  And, off they go.

If AARP had been around back then, then Abram and Sarai surely would have made the front cover of AARP Magazine:  “Two Seniors with Get-Up-and-Go!”

Abram’s wife is 10 years younger than he is.  As I read that, I couldn’t help but think about those pharmaceutical ads on t.v.  You know the ones, where the couple inevitably end up sitting in his and hers bathtubs, out in the back yard, watching the sun set?

Is it just me, or does it always seem like the woman is about 10 years younger than the man?  Well, whatever, the pharmaceutical folks promise us older guys that there can be a bathtub awaiting us.

So, Abram and Sarai’s journey of faith, in practical terms, meant having lots of bathtub moments, trusting that at least one of these times, God would honor the promise of blessing them with an heir.  But, no doing.

Years go by.  Till finally, one night, Abram says to God, in Genesis chapter 17, verse 17, “You know, God, Sarai is half-way dead and I’m not feeling so good myself.”  And, Sarai, at one point says to herself, though I’m sure she was looking over her shoulder at God when she says it, “Good grief!  Abram’s got one foot in the grave and I don’t feel so good myself!”  That’s in Genesis chapter 18, verses 11 and 12.

When people, even people of profound faith, get to the point where it seems like everything around them is dying, and all hope is starting to circle the drain, they panic.  And, when people, even people of great faith, get panicky, well, then they start casting about for any and every remedy they can imagine.  That’s what Sarai and Abram do, isn’t it?  We read the first five verses of chapter 16.

But, already, in the chapter before, in chapter 15, verses 1 – 6, Abram had come to God and said, “God, what’s up?  No child yet, God.  How about this:  we take my man-slave, Eliezer—good boy, strong stock—how about I adopt Eliezer as my own son?”  God says, no, “This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir.”

That’s when God takes Abram out under the stars and says, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them….So shall your descendants be.”  Then, says chapter 15, verse 6, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

But, then, comes chapter 16, and now it’s Sarai’s turn.  Sarai is so, so frustrated and so disheartened.  Finally, she decides:  “If it is to be, it’s up to me!”  She will convince Abram to employ what was an accepted practice for couples in their situation.  Sarai has an Egyptian maid named Hagar.  So, Sarai decides Abram must sire a son through her maid, Hagar, and then Sarah and Abram will claim the child as their own.

Now, remember, Abram had just had this great encounter with God;  in fact, that encounter will become pivotal in defining the early Christian faith, And Abram believed the Lord; and Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.  But, Abram doesn’t protest.  Sarai wants this; it seems reasonable given everything else, so why not.  Abram takes Hagar as a second wife, and lo and behold, he impregnates Hagar.

Hagar, for her part, sees this as her chance to turn the table on Sarai.  According to verse 4, now that she, Hagar, is about to provide Abram a descendent, she thinks Abram might make her Wife #1, and move Sarai off to the side.  Verses 4 and 5 give us just a hint of the heartbreak and the hostility that now descends upon this Bedouin family.

Hagar bears Abram their son, Ishmael, and then thirteen more years go by with Sarai continuing unable to bear children.  Every day for thirteen years, Sarah’s got wife number 2, Hagar, and Hagar’s little boy, Ishmael, there tempting Abram to turn his affections away from Sarai.

It is said, that if you play a country song backwards, your wife will forgive you, your dog will come home, and you’ll get your old job back at the mill.  By chapter 21, how Sarai and Abram must have wished they could play their own country song backwards.  Because, finally, after thirteen years, chapter 21 describes how Sarai herself becomes pregnant.  Yes, 90-year old Sarai gives birth to Isaac, the child of the promise, to 100-year old Abram.

All the while, over in the shadows, sits the worst decision Sarai ever made:  Hagar, her maid, and Ishmael, whom Abram loves because Ishmael is his son.  Until, this day, when Isaac is born and then circumcised, and, then another three years go by, and Sarai weens Isaac.  “Enough!” says Sarai.  “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”

It had seemed like such a good move, hadn’t it?  It had seemed in keeping with God’s promise even though God appeared to be letting everything slide to where, if somebody didn’t do something, all hope would be lost.  Abram and Sarai would be dead, and God’s promise would die out with them.

By the way, teenagers, it’s safe to re-engage with us now.  No more talk about old folks and their procreating antics.

Fast forward many thousands of years later to 1977.  All that Lewis Grizzard meant when he bemoaned the passing of the King of rock n’ roll.  The 1950s and all of American life that got made in the 1950s that cruised so easily over into the early ‘60s and then these United States started hitting some rough going through the later ‘60s and into the ‘70s and ‘80s and in 1989 Lewis Grizzard realizes, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.”

Elvis is dead and the kind of white American Protestantism that came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s is not feeling so good either, here in the second decade of the 2000s.

When I came out of seminary in 1985, evangelical churches were just starting to catch on that something was changing in protestant church life.  By the time I became a senior pastor in 1990, the panic was starting to stir.  By the time I became a pastor across town, here in Charlottesville in 1995, desperation had taken hold.

Pressure started coming down hard on local pastors from every denominational and nondenominational source you can imagine, from the right and the left and right down the center, the experts warned us—“Your churches are dying, and you better find some way to birth new life or game over.”

They pretty much implied and some said it outright:  “Even if you have to abandon your old folks,” they said, “those dear old saints who traveled this journey of faith lo this many years—yes, we know they’re sweet, and they can bake a good casserole…but you better dump them and find yourselves a new spouse quick and make it work!”

Find for yourselves, in effect, a Hagar, a younger crowd with whom to make a new kind of church family.

What a bunch of panicky nonsense!  If God’s people can’t figure out how to live the Gospel together without jettisoning their old folks by the wayside, then we need to re-read the Gospel and the Book of Acts and all the rest of it, and figure it out.  But, that is the ecclesiastical wasteland of ideas that has dogged pastors for at least the past three decades.

Whomever you call as your next pastor, I want you to know:  she or he will come to you already knowing this tremendous pressure to do something! Do something, do something! Or there will not be a next generation of believers; there will be no heir to keep it alive.  It’ll all end up going down into the grave with us!

You will not need to tell your next Senior Minister that the mission of the Church has gotten harder.  You will not need to tell your Senior Minister that UBC is finding it harder like everyone else.  It certainly is no harder for us Christians in 2016 than it was when the first Christians held their first potluck supper in the year 30 or so.

You tell your next Senior Minister, “We’re an inter-generational church of old people and young people and somewhere-in-the-middle people, and we’re ready to do our part together, and we know that God will do God’s part, so come on!  Let’s see what God’s up to!”

There is not one thing you or I or anyone can do, to do what only God can do.  No more than that 100 year old man and that 90 year old woman could sire a child.  All they could do and all any of us can do, is to be convinced that God has called us to walk the journey with God, to keep on walking, walking, walking.

We have to learn the hard lessons of Scripture, along with the joyful lessons those ancient mothers and fathers of our faith seek to teach us.  Abram and Sarai themselves would tell us, “Avoid the foolishness such as what which our panic gave birth to; instead, keep to the journey of keeping faith with God, trusting in the promise to which God alone can give life.”

Now, despite the wishes of more than a few fans, Elvis really, really, has left the building, and he ain’t coming back no more.  But that’s o.k.  We can still listen to Elvis and reminisce.  I mean, when Elvis starts singing, “Kentucky Rain”, you’ve gotta get at least a little choked up.  But, I got to tell you, there’s a lot a great young musicians out there putting out some good tunes.

There’s a lot of hope and life and what we might called “pre-faithed” folks all around us.  We just need to figure out how to talk to them of the God who created them and who loves them and who welcomes them to delight in God as God delights in them.

We’ve got the perfect example in Jesus of Nazareth.  Go find your next Senior Minister who will help you figure that out…how to talk to people about Jesus, who will lead them to God.  Such a simple thing to do, with faith in God, who calls us out on that simple path of obedience.

 


1Lewis Grizzard, ­Elvis Is Dead, and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself, Atlanta:  Peachtree Publishing, Ltd., 1984.

Abram’s Reunion Tour

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, August 14, 2016
Taken from Genesis 11:1-9; 12:1-4

tower of babel andreas zielenkiewicz

Somewhere, in some agent’s office, or in some old rock star’s mansion, somebody starts dreaming of their former glory, decades now long past them, and they say to themselves, “Wouldn’t it be great to get the band back together for just one more tour?”  So, they do.

They line up a string of venues, announce the dates, sell the tickets.  Fans who’ve long ago gone on to make lives of their own, raise their kids, work their jobs, maybe even by now, have retired from those jobs.  Those fans eat it up:  have you heard the news?  They got the band back together for one more tour.  Yay!  Rock and Roll!

Nobody, but nobody, fits into what they once wore when they first went to their first concerts with the band:  not the band members and most certainly not the fans.  But, in everybody’s minds and hearts, they are all suddenly young, fit, hip, vivacious, beautiful, handsome and ever so groovy.

The band comes to town, the fans flock from all over the region and even from further away.  They gather as one into that big arena and they are all transported to that far distant time and place that once was but has long ceased to be.  The band plays the old songs and the audience goes wild and sings along every well-rehearsed word.  That’s the magic of a reunion tour.

Karen and I got to see The Police in their reunion tour.  November 6, 2007.  It was like being back in your car with your collection of cassette tapes:  ‘Message in a Bottle’, ‘Synchronicity’, ‘Walking on the Moon’, ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’, ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’, and, of course, ‘Roxanne’.  And lots of others, sung by Sting, backed up by Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers.

Sting and Stewart Copeland were in pretty good form for old guys; Andy could have used a little time with a personal trainer.  But they sounded great, and we the fans sounded great, and it was all great.  And that is what a reunion tour is all about.

Abram, bless his old seventy-five-year-old soul, is about to go on a grand reunion tour, picking up where his own father, Terah, had left off.  The tour had started quite a few years earlier, when old Pop Terah suddenly decided to do a very odd thing most folks back then would never do.

Terah decided to pack up the family and leave their homeland of Ur of the Chaldeans.  He set out to make a very, very long journey northwestward over into Mesopotamia and then straight southward to dwell in the land of Canaan. But, they never made it to Canaan.

Terah made that long northwestward journey over as far as the land of Haran, in Mesopotamia, and then he stopped.  Maybe he liked the terrain, maybe he just plain ran out of steam after walking 600 miles, but there in Haran, Terah and his family re-potted themselves and stayed put.  Then Terah died, leaving his son, Abram, as chief of his Bedouin tribe.

That’s where Genesis chapter 11 ends.  It’s where a new chapter begins, literally, in the Book of Genesis, and, literally, also it’s where a new chapter opens in the wanderings and meanderings of humanity.  Abram, in chapter 12, verse 1, thinks he is starting off to find a new homeland in Canaan, where his own father had once intended to settle down.

Abram will tour on down through Canaan, briefly crossing over into Egypt, only to return into Canaan and retrace his steps, up and across and down again, traveling throughout that ancient land seeking the homeland God has promised to him and to his descendants.

Probably, Abram doesn’t really grasp the full extent of what his touring through Canaan, looking for a homeland, is really about.  God does try to explain it to him, though.

God tells Abram in chapter 12, verses 1 and 2, “I’ve got a great blessing in store for you:  Go … to the [new] land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”  Then skip to the end of verse 3, “… and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves or shall be blessed.”

God invites Abram to understand the really big scope of what God is doing with this dear earth.  Abram is heading up what will turn out to be a Grand, Universal, Reunion Tour.  God is assembling the band, the managers, the roadies, booking the venues and all the other bits and pieces I can pull out of that metaphor.

God’s long-view ambition is to reunite the many nations into a restored community.  God’s ambition and love for humanity is that they finally receive the blessing of life which God intended all along for all the children of Adam and Eve.

Notice what I just did there?  It’s important to notice what I just did there:  I said, “all the children of Adam and Eve.”  I just slipped us back over into the early stories of Genesis, chapters one through eleven.  Those are mythic stories, by which I certainly do not mean untrue stories.

Mythic stories, whatever connections they once had with facts rooted in one time and people, take on a far larger life of their own and on a far grander scope.  They become stories that capture universal truths common to human experience of reality.

That’s what the stories in Genesis one through eleven are about.  They are accounts rooted in Hebraic memory that now reach mythic status about universal human experience.

The final, mythic-sized story come in Genesis 11, verse 1, the story of the Tower of Babel, “Now the whole earth had one language and few words.”  That could also be translated as, “The whole earth had one language and one vocabulary,” which would make sense.  What did that one language and one vocabulary sound like?

How many of you have seen the Disney movie, ‘Finding Dory’? How many of you saw the Disney movie before it, ‘Finding Nemo’?  You recall in ‘Finding Nemo’ when the seagulls show up: a flock of seagulls show up, hoping to swallow up Marlin and Dory who are stranded up on the dock.  What do the seagulls all say:  “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!”

O.K., one language, one vocabulary:  that pretty much describes the folks building the Tower of Babel… “Mine!  Mine!  Mine!  Mine! Mine!”  It was the language and vocabulary of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement.  “Come!” said the people of the land of Shinar, “Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (11:4)

Then, with a bit of humor, chapter 11, verse 5, tells us that this tower the people of Shinar thought was so immense and impressive was, in God’s sight, so tiny and nondescript that God actually has to come down out of heaven to get a good look at it.  And God said, “Hmmm.  This is not good.”  So, God does what?

God confuses their language, so that they may not understand another’s speech.  Which means, when everybody got up the next morning and went to work on the tower, things got screwy pretty quickly.  I imagine the Three Stooges writ large.  You recall whenever the Three Stooges tried to build something together or hang wallpaper or whatever?  Total chaos ensued.

I picture this next morning at the Tower worksite as a kind of Three Stooges flash mob.  Things got so frustrating that the story ends in Genesis 11 saying “… they left off building the city … [because] the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”  Thus, the origins of all the nations and all the languages, as described in Genesis 11.

There, we cross over into Genesis 12.  Here, we enter into a different kind of story-telling.  We enter now into a time of recorded history of this single family, headed up first by Terah, and then by Abram.  That’s when God speaks up.

Whether God ever spoke to Abram’s father, Terah, to call Terah to go to Canaan, we don’t know.  We just know that’s where they were headed, when Terah decided he’d gone as far as he was going and then stopped, and then, died.  Leaving, Abram.

So, God speaks to Abram, basically saying, “Abram, it’s time to finish the trip to Canaan.  I will make you great.  You will flourish.  You will teach the nations of me, and the nations will once again share a common language and purpose, the language of worship of God and the purpose of knowing and serving the one true God.

Now, we need to realize, Abram was no hero at the time.  For example, Abram gets down into Canaan, and life turns out to be hard there in Canaan.  So, Abram packs up and keeps on going down into Egypt.  It’s just a little further down in verses 10 and following.

Well, they’re about to cross over the border into Egypt when Abram says to Sarai, his wife, “You know, honey, have I ever told you how beautiful you are?”  And Sarai says, “Oh, Abram, you’re so sweet!”  And Abram says, “No, really, you are really quite the looker.  But, we’ve got a problem.”

Abram continues, “When the Pharaoh gets a look at you, he’s likely to have me murdered so he can take you for himself.  So, this is what we’re going to do.  We’ll tell everyone that you’re my sister.”

“That way,” says Abram with wink, “Instead of murdering me, the Pharaoh will shower me with lots of gifts trying to gain my favor so I’ll give you to him to be his wife.  We can ride that wave for a long time.  We just gotta sell it!”

And that’s what they do.  You can read about how that all turns out later, but this suggests that Abram wasn’t at this point particularly the heroic trooper we might think he was.

But, God’s o.k. with that.  God doesn’t need Abram to be a hero; God simply needs Abram to be obedient and to extend God a little bit of trust.  Abram’s obedience and trust in God are going to get stretched quite a bit over the years ahead, but God’s willing to work with what Abram’s got–or doesn’t have, as will often seem to be the case in the years ahead.  His Bedouin life was going to have some very interesting twists and turns ahead.

There’s suppose to be an ancient Chinese curse that goes this way – I’m sure you’ve heard it, the ancient Chinese curse – “May you live in an interesting age”.  Whether it’s an ancient Chinese curse or not, the gist of the saying is true:  if you’ve ever gone through a so-called “interesting” phase in your life, you’re usually pretty happy when things settle back down into just plain old routine.

As with Abram and Sarai, we ourselves are living in an interesting time, with unexpected twists and turns.  As Christians, you and I are living in an interesting time.  As members of University Baptist Church, we are living in an interesting time.  While this time in the church family is an interesting one, it is not a curse or a burden.  It is a blessing, just as Abram and Sarai’s travels in following God’s call was a blessing.

You were quite ready for this church to move forward, but somehow things seem to go more sideways.  That means that you, like Abram and Saria, have found yourselves with a calling you did not anticipate nor necessarily ever want.  But here it is:  you are the members of this longstanding congregation during one of its rare interim transitions.  So, you should feel honored, if not particularly heroic in it all.

Now, some of you should be feeling doubly-honored today.  Because, some of you found your fellow members electing you to the Leadership Transition Team.  And some of you found your fellow members electing you to become the Senior Minister Search Committee.  It is a true opportunity to render a tremendous service for God’s continuing work in this body.

You yourselves, as members of this body, are now calling yourselves into a Church Conference this coming Wednesday evening to receive that Transition Team’s report.  You need to be here to receive and decide on that report.

You need to do that, first, to honor the tremendous work-hours and the quality work-hours they have invested to do what you asked them to do.  The second reason you need to be here on Wednesday night is because what comes out of that meeting will go into the hands of the Senior Minister Search Committee.  You will essentially be telling them, in your search, go find the next Senior Minister who is like this, this, and this, and not that, that, or that.

To put it the way God put it to Abram that day long ago that Genesis 12 tells, what is the new land is God showing you?  Abram really didn’t know the land that lay before him.  Abram had a general direction, you know, ‘we’re heading south down into Canaan.’  Abram knew there’d be a different kind of people to encounter there: the Canaanites.  But Abram had experience; he wasn’t new to Bedouin life; he was a Bedouin, after all; he was just going to go be a Bedouin somewhere else for a change.

The land that now lies ahead of you as a Baptist, Christian congregation is a new land.  You need to affirm these three truths—first, God is leading you.  That’s Affirmation Number One; it’s the biggie.  Do you trust, right now, today, that God is leading you as a congregation?  Yes?  Great, God is leading you.  Which leads to Affirmation Number Two.

Affirmation Number Two is almost as big as Affirmation Number One:  God is leading you …into a new land.  The new land into which God is leading you is not back there in the old homeland from whence came our patriarchs and our matriarchs.

You know all the old light bulb jokes?

“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?  Just one, but first the light bulb’s gotta want to change.”
“How many divas does it take the change a light bulb?  Trick question:  the diva just holds the light bulb while the world revolves around her and unscrews the light bulb for her.”
“How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?  What?!  My granddaddy gave that light bulb to this church!”

The times, they do call for a different sort of light bulb.

If you can make those first two affirmations, then you’ll be ready for the third grand affirmation.  One, we trust God is leading us.  Two, God is leading us into a new land.  And, the third affirmation:  we believe God has a spot for us in that Great Reunion Tour which God started all those millennia ago.  You are of the Tour, to gather all the peoples together, to worship and serve the one true, God.

It’s a big, big story and long, long journey.  The story and the journey yet remain incomplete.  The Reunion Tour is not finished.  The destination still appears to yet to be a far country apart from where we stand today.  But, those whom God calls to share the story, to walk the journey, receive God’s blessing.  Through them, through us, God extends the blessing.

By faith, you and I are part of the story now.  God, each day, invites you and me to keep on the journey, just as God invited Abram to resume the journey with God.  There is blessing along this path of faith.

This journey, this Tour, is not just a metaphor.  It involves some actual, real time, often, hard work.  Like, finding yourself a member of a faith community, such as University Baptist Church, going through a transition.

Rich blessings lie within this journey, as well as the greater blessing that will come when God has done all God intends for us and for all the families of this earth.  We’re all in one way or another, are on the Tour.

Community of the Avant-Garde

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, August 7, 2016
Taken from Luke 12:32-40

 

The phrase ‘avant-garde’ is from the French.  Its literal meaning is “advance guard” or “vanguard”.  Originally a military term, ‘avant-garde’ came to be applied more generally.

We describe as ‘avant-garde’ a group of people who push against the boundaries of what larger society considers acceptable or the norm or the status quo.  Most often we apply the label ‘avant-garde’ to artists across a variety of media, especially in the visual arts.

Rarely, though, do we hear the phrase applied to us as Christians, do we?  When have you ever heard anyone describe a Baptist church as ‘avant-garde’?

Yet, that is exactly the role Jesus envisioned for his followers as he walked among them.  They were the avant-garde of the Kingdom of God.  We today–yes, even us, University Baptist Church, as much as it may strain us to see it or to believe it—we are to be the Community of the Avant-Garde of Christ’s Kingdom.

You may be asking yourself, what in the world does that mean?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Let’s see if we can begin to find an answer.  Let’s begin by looking at an example of avant-garde, such as this painting on the cover of our worship bulletin this morning.

The painting is entitled ‘The Madonna of Port Lliad’.  The artist, Salvador Dali, painted it in 1950.  Now I know, strictly speaking, Dali was a Surrealist artist, but I think for our purposes this morning we can agree that Salvador Dali was also an Avant-Garde artist.

We’ll just make a few cursory observations of Dali’s depiction of the Madonna with Child.  Let’s start with the most obvious thing to note:  there’s painting of the Madonna with the Christ-Child on the cover of our worship bulletin this morning!  What in the world is a Roman Catholic icon doing on the cover of a Baptist worship bulletin?  It may prompt us to think about the long-standing hostility between Protestants and Roman Catholics.  It may stir up our own feelings about things Roman Catholic, feeling we’d rather not consider.

Let’s move in a little further.  There appears to be a sea shell at the bottom, center, of the painting.  And, look, there’s a big conch shell floating in the air there to the Madonna and Child’s left – our right.  But, especially, we see this much larger scalloped shell directly over head, at the top center of the painting.  What’s Dali got going on with these floating sea shells?

And what’s that hanging down from that big scalloped shell over top of everything?  It looks like an egg.  Indeed, it is an egg.  Well, that’s just plain weird, isn’t it?  Dali has sure got a messed vision of the Madonna and the Christ-Child, doesn’t he?

Until, you recall, that sea shells became a symbol of Christian pilgrimage.  The sea shell reminded Christians of when they would go on pilgrimage, leaving their homelands and crossing the sea to reach the Holy Land.  Ultimately, the sea shell came to stand for the pilgrimage every Christian is on, until we cross over that final sea to Heaven’s shore.  And, we recall that the egg became a Christian symbol of new life, especially the gift of Eternal life from above.  That’s why eggs are so important at Easter.

O.k., Dali, I’ll give you credit for the sea shells floating around in your painting, and I’ll give you credit for the egg suspended from above.  But, drilling right on down to the heart of your painting, what is going on in the middle of Madonna’s torso and in the middle of the Christ-child’s torso?  It looks like Dali painted big, empty spaces, taking away almost their entire torso’s.

Was Dali implying that there’s really nothing at the heart of the Madonna and Child?  Was Dali saying that, in reality, the Christian faith is just one big empty illusion?  If the greeters could have handed out magnifying glasses with the bulletins, you could take a much closer look at those big square holes Dali painted in the middle of the Madonna and the Christ-Child.  What you would see is that those openings are windows.  If you look through those window, you can see far off into the distant horizon that Dali painted.

You notice those little figures to each side that line the way off toward that horizon?  Those look like they might be angels, don’t they?  And you notice what they’re floating over?  They’re floating over a large body of water, like a sea.  Maybe, they’re lining the way across this sea that ends on Heaven’s shoreline off there beyond the horizon.

Looking through the windows the Dali painted at the heart of the Madonna and the Christ-child, you see this horizon that lies at the center of Dali’s painting.  Maybe Dali wanted us to consider if we meditate upon the life of Mary, if we meditate upon the life of Christ, we will find a window opening up in our own hearts, through which we might find our way to God.

There is a whole lot more going on here in this piece of art than first meets the eye.  At first glance, we see Dali’s painting, and we react: how weird it all is and odd and perhaps even so off-putting that we don’t want to even bother with it.

We could dismiss it out of hand as so much foolishness.  Or we start asking questions of it…what in the world is going on here?  What’s the artist seeing that I’m not seeing?  Why are these people and these objects depicted in this way that seem so unnatural, even bizarre to us?

That is the function of the avant-garde.  The avant-garde do not depict things as we commonly experience them.  They do not pretend to offer us a view of the world as we find comfort or pleasure in it.  The Avant-Garde push us to ask, how can they see life this way?  They’ve got to be crazy or mixed up or out of touch…it’s not normal, that’s for sure!

Swing back around to our Scripture, here in Luke chapter 12.  Chapter 12 is where Luke presents to us what we know better through Matthew’s Gospel as the Sermon on the Mount.  Except Luke puts a somewhat harder edge to Jesus’ teachings.  For example, this is where Luke inserts Jesus’ shocking words in verse 51, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

In the verses previous to what is printed for us, Jesus lays out what the community of Christ is to be about.  Jesus catalogues and portrays all the things in which we seek safety, security, strength, protection.  Then, in verses 30-31, he says, “For all the nations of the world seek these very same things…all the people the world over seek these things; and your Father (in Heaven) knows that you need them, too.”

 But, you are not to be like the nations of this world!  You are not to be like the people among whom you live.  You belong to a new nation and to a new people.  “Instead,” Jesus continues in verse 31, “seek God’s kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”

Jesus, here, bluntly confronts us:  what do we seek after?  What do we take hold of, that we think will give us life of safety and security and joy?  Jesus understands us.  Jesus knows us.  Jesus sought to warn us of the inevitable results of going after what every generation of every society has done.  You finally will be robbed of the very thing you hoped to gain.

We think we are taking hold of what will make our lives right and prosperous and secure.  But, Jesus knew that it was like reaching out to shake the hand of a strong man, whose grip is far greater than our own grip.  We reach out thinking we entering a partnership with a strong man who will give us what we need, who will protect us, who will make a way for us to be happy and at peace.

Only to discover, we have taken hold of a strong man who has no intention of letting us go, who gets a grip that begins to pinch and to frighten us, that makes us even more needy and desperate.

The kingdoms of this world are caught in that grip, says Jesus, and it’s a death-grip for sure.  It pulls this earth down into corruption and destruction and despair.  We wish we were free of its terror, free of its anxiety, free of all that wears and grinds us down, but we’re too afraid to let go even though we know it’s killing us and making us kill each other.

It was so in Jesus’ day, and it is so in our day.  Jesus said to his followers then, as Jesus says to us his followers today, in verses 32 and 33, “Fear not, little flock. Fear not!  For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Let go!  Let go!  Sell what you have, give it away, give it to the poor, let go of it for the sake of your own soul.”

 God takes hold of you, and God claims you. God who knows what you need, it is God’s delight to give you the eternal kingdom, as well as the things of this world.  You can let go and be released from that death grip of fear.  That’s what Jesus says.

 Jesus promises us even as Jesus warns us, in verse 34, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  And, there, he means, lies our destiny.  Will it ultimately be a destiny of destruction?  Or, will it be a destiny of Eternal life?

But, we react, “Lord, it’s just so…problematic to do that.  It’s problematic!”  Oh, yeah, you bet your britches it’s problematic.  I don’t know what the 1st century Aramaic equivalent was for the word “problematic”, but those early followers found out how problematic it was almost from the get-go.

Living out the Lord’s command was rife with mind-bending, soul-stretching problems and challenges.  It was going to become divisive, as Jesus plainly said here in this chapter 12, verses 49-53.

But, as the Book of Acts testifies of those early believers, over and over again, they faced the challenges, they sought the wisdom and the power which only Christ could provide them, and they went right on, in Jerusalem, into Judea, into Samaria, and right out through the entire world.

Can you imagine a community of people actually living the way Jesus commands, on this earth and in this nation, in this Commonwealth and in this city, on this particular corner in this city of Charlottesville?  Can you imagine you yourself, living this way, that Jesus calls on and even demands that we live?

We would not be of the norm, would we?  We would not be of the status quo, would we?  We would be an oddity, seemingly strange and weird by the standards of our place and time.  Onlookers would wonder, what in the world is that about?  What are they seeing that we don’t see?

They may ridicule us; they may dismiss us; but they may also begin to ask the questions that will lead them to the answers of salvation and of eternal life.  They would be changed, and all within their spheres of influence would change as well.  And, a little bit more of the Kingdom of God would show up on this earth.

That is what it would mean to be “The Community of the Avant-Garde of Christ.”  That is what it would mean for you to be an avant-garde of the Lord.

Regenerate

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, July 31, 2016
Taken from Colossians 3:1-14

butterfly emerging

What if I were to look out over this congregation and say, “my, oh my, what a bunch of Re-GEN-erates you are!”, I’m pretty sure there’d be a sudden tension in the air.  You might wonder, “What did that preacher just call me?  A bunch of what?”

I would have to say very clearly and succinctly and slowly, “RE-Gen-erates”.  And you still wouldn’t be certain that I hadn’t just insulted everybody in the room.  The word, “regenerate”, just sounds bad, doesn’t it?

It sounds too much like that other word that, indeed, is an insult: DE-gen-e-rate.”

Colossians 3:5-9 offers us a fairly inclusive list of what it takes to be a degenerate:  “fornication, impurity, lust, evil desire—I like the old King James Version word for ‘evil desire’, concupiscence—“fornication, impurity, lust, concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…put them all away:  anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk…Do not lie to one another….”  Yes, I do think that about covers what we would mean by the word, “DE-generate”.

You’ve to ask yourself, where were they finding these people?   That must have been one tough crowd they were inviting to come to church with them on Sunday!   At least, the Apostle Paul felt compelled to say, “quit doing all that stuff!  Quit being a bunch of DE-generates!”   Instead, what were they to be?  They were to become a bunch of RE-generates.

Verses 12-14, Paul describes the qualities of the Regenerate, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, (these qualities of life):  compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other as the Lord has forgiven you….And above all these put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

 Love, that binds everything together in perfect harmony.  If you are of a certain age, that last bit may call to mind the old Coca-Cola commercial?  1971. It was entitled, simply, “Hilltop”, but we know it better by the jingle title, “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)”.

I’d like to buy the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves

(Chorus)
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
That’s the real thing…

It’s a sweet picture, but that’s not what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote of a love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

That would be great, wouldn’t it, if all it took was to put a drink of something in everybody’s hands that would put a smile on their lips and a joy in their hearts and all sing the same happy song together.

A few years ago, Karen and I traveled up to New York City to celebrate Thanksgiving with our daughter, Emily.  We got there on Thanksgiving Eve.  Of course, the big deal on Thanksgiving Day in New York City is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

That Thanksgiving Eve, we took the subway from Brooklyn over to Manhattan, over to the stop beneath the west side of Central Park.  That’s where the parade floats were being lined up and the big balloons were being inflated.

We come up the stairs to the street level, and it’s like popping up into the middle of a carnival.   Lights everywhere, people shuffling along, rubbernecking at all these wondrous sights of the beautiful, elaborate floats, taking selfies with the partially inflated Snoopy and Charlie Brown and Buzz Lightyear and all the rest.

There were food vendors and souvenir vendors, and there was music.  Golden oldies songs from across the decades were playing through loud speakers placed all along the street.   Emily, Karen, and I are packed in, cheek to jowl, with strangers from all over the globe.   When, suddenly, everyone stops.  And, we hear, coming over the loudspeakers, The Beatles, singing “I Saw Her Standing There”.

Like one big international troupe of folk singers, this whole crowd of strangers stand there, on a street along Central Park, in the cold, singing, “I Saw Her Standing There”.

We weren’t all singing in the same key, that’s for sure.   And we didn’t get all the words in just right.   But, it was clearly the same song we all were singing together, grinning at each other in the silliness of it and the delight of it.   And, then, the song was over, we dissolved back into our own little groups, and we continued shuffling along.

You see, that’s an analogy for what human morality is.   There is a common connection among all people.   There is a common, human morality.   As a civilized people, we indeed must seek out our common values to organize ourselves around those common values.

All the world over, we are trying our best to sing a kind of golden oldie song God has implanted within every person, when God created the human family with that Divine Image within us.

What vestiges of that ancient song we can help each other sing, we should sing.  However out of tune, with whatever lapses of lyrics, we as a larger society must help each other sing as clearly as possible out of shared humanity, our common core of morality.   But, it’s not enough.  It’s not enough.

It’s not enough because our morality is plagued by our own mortality.  The wasteful flaws of our own weaknesses deteriorate our best intent.  We struggle mightily to sustain what we can of human dignity.

We fight, over and over, to broaden the boundaries of whose humanity we will dignify, the fullness of whose humanity we will include.

Our common morality is a beautiful thing.  But it is the beauty like that of a translucent chrysalis that takes shape, on the branches of our souls.  Our common morality is a structure in which the spiritual butterfly might form and emerge.  Yet, something stops that life within from forming.   A moral death takes hold.   There is left only the chrysalis, an amazing organic structure on its own, to be sure, yet empty of life.

Sadly, we in the church of Jesus Christ are too easily content only to hold up the beautiful but empty chrysalis of morality.  We fill it up, hoping there might emerge one day, a butterfly.  But, it is not enough.  If it were enough, there would have been no need for the Incarnation of God in humanity.   There was no need for just one more teacher to come among us, however excellent or insightful or wise that teacher’s lessons might be.

A few Sundays ago, we considered the time when the religious lawyer approached Jesus and asked Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus asked him right back, “what do you think?  How do you read the Law?”  (Luke 10:25-37)

The lawyer was able to tell Jesus exactly what the Law said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The lawyer already knew what to do; he didn’t need Jesus to teach him that.

Jesus told the lawyer, “you’re exactly right…go do what you already know to do!”  But, the lawyer couldn’t.  He knew the teaching, but he didn’t have within himself what was needed.

What was required was for an infusion of Divine Life within this human fabric.  What was required was for a people to be called out of mortal darkness and into Eternal Light.   We, in the church, we carry within us not merely the words of an ancient song.   We carry within us the power of the Ancient Songwriter’s own Eternal Presence.  We, in other words, are called and empowered to be the Regenerate of God.  Why, then, do we in the church settle for being mere purveyors of morality?

Why do we settle into being houses organized to keep each other on the straight and narrow? That is not our calling.  We are called instead to be houses of celebration of the One who never did nor does he now walk a straight and narrow path.  Rather, our Lord travels broadly, our Lord goes fully among all the peoples of the world.

As verse 11 says, there is no longer to be “this people or that people”; there is no longer to be “this religion or that religion”; there is to be no longer “this lifestyle or that lifestyle”; there is to be no longer “this gender or that gender”.  There is instead to be but one, single humanity among whom and for whom, as verse 11 proclaims, “Christ is all, and in all.”  And that is all and more than enough!

But, we have not dared imagine it.   No more than we can look upon the chrysalis and imagine the butterfly that might grow there, we cannot imagine even among ourselves such a life where “Christ is all, and in all”.  Yet that is in fact the heart of our calling as a church of Jesus Christ.  To dare believe the Gospel and to live that Gospel and to be content with nothing less.

In all the ways we fail to turn ourselves over to the regenerating and converting, and enabling power of the Spirit of the Risen Christ, we settle for a mere Christianized morality.   Christianized morality is only a common morality dressed up in its Sunday best.

University Baptist Church, we are called to nothing less than to proclaim and to teach and to witness of the true Gospel which far too many congregations have abandoned.  Yes, they pay homage to the name of Jesus but they embrace for themselves a deadly legalism, or a polite moralism or a cautious rationalism.  They are cut off from the regenerative headwaters of Heaven that alone bear the Christ-life not sourced anywhere from this poor earth.

May we be that church, that receives that life from above.  May we dare be the church in Charlottesville that knows itself as the Divine Chrysalis from which emerges the most glorious life of Christ’s own.   May we be the place where all may come and know this truth, “Christ is all, Christ in all”.

 

Who, Not How

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, July 24, 2016
Taken from Luke 11: 1-13

Hands - 07-24-2126

Today I want to start with the prayer before the Lord’s Prayer. Did you catch that one in today’s reading? We talk a lot about the Lord’s Prayer, but there another prayer that comes right before it. It’s okay to look back, if you like—this is an open-book quiz. This prayer I’m talking about comes in Luke 11, the first verse, from the mouth of one of the disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

“Lord, teach us to pray.” That may not strike us at first as a prayer, but it’s actually a pretty good one, isn’t it? Have you ever prayed that? “I wish I could pray better.” Or, “I wish I could pray like____ (insert name here).” Or maybe a New Year’s Resolution: this year I’m going to pray more. I won’t ask for a show of hands for who’s done that one! I would guess that all of us at some point, maybe right now, have shared the desire of these disciples to be “better” at praying.

How amazing would it be to have a special prayer lesson from Jesus, of all people? This is a guy who clearly knows how to pray! So the disciples go up to Jesus and ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Teach us to pray.

I wonder if they thought Jesus would teach them a special trick. “All right, if you really want something, make sure you ask like this.” Surely Jesus would know the best technique. Or maybe they simply admired the depth and intensity of his spiritual life. He woke early in the mornings to go off and pray alone, and he prayed with large crowds of people; he would pray over meals with his disciples and pray intensely in a garden at night. Prayer for Jesus was everywhere, connecting him with God and enabling him to live in a clear, purposeful way. Teach us to pray like that, the disciples asked.

And he does. So today, we look at what Jesus teaches them about prayer.

Let me be clear that the goal of this sermon is not for me to teach you to pray. Jesus is the person for that job, not me, though I will look carefully at what he teaches. And I should also say upfront that there is a lot I don’t understand about prayer. Top of the list is that age-old question of why some prayers seem to get answered and others don’t. Why do some people who are sick get better and some not? Why are some of our most desperate prayers met with silence? There are paradoxes here that I don’t understand and don’t expect to ever figure out. I’m not going to try to answer those questions today. And I’m also not going to give you any special techniques for how to pray better. Here’s why: I don’t think Jesus cares about technique.

When it comes to prayer, method doesn’t really matter. What matters, what Jesus teaches us, is the relationship with God lying under that prayer. It’s a question of who, not how. Rather than a secret technique, Jesus teaches his disciples who God is and who they are in relation to God.

So let’s look at his answer, starting first with what he teaches about God.

From the opening words of the prayer, we are told to relate to God as our father, and then Jesus uses a couple of illustrations to make his point. “Which of you… if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” The absurdity of those questions is obvious. Parents don’t put their kids in harm’s way; you don’t let kids play with knives or jump off buildings or play with snakes and scorpions—at least I hope not! Good parents give children what they need to grow and thrive, not things that will hurt them. And that’s true even when the kids don’t like it.

There’s a funny blog online called “Reasons my kid is crying.” On that website, people upload pictures of their toddlers in full meltdown mode, with a caption explaining the various reasons why. I’ll read some of the captions, and I’ll let you imagine for yourself an image of the most miserable, dejected toddler you can imagine.

  • I wouldn’t let her drink the yummy blue juice that goes in the dishwasher.
  • Because he didn’t want to get in the bathtub. Then because he didn’t want to get out.
  • It took me more than 0 seconds to take his shirt off.
  • Someone else was walking on the sidewalk.
  • She wants to be in the corner of the room and in bed at the same time.
  • Asked for a waffle. Refused waffle. Asked why the waffle was taken away. Screams because she doesn’t have her waffle.
  • He wants the windows down in the car but not the wind in his face.
  • We asked him to stop hitting his big brother with a fly swatter.

They go on, but you get the idea. That’s part of parenting: little kids crying because they want something that’s not good for them, or not possible, or not even logically consistent. It’s funny to watch, because we see how they don’t quite understand how the world works yet.

Do you think God ever hears our prayers that way? Not that God is laughing at us, but that God sees our experiences and prayers with a broader understanding and perspective that we don’t have. And God is not mad about that, or disappointed, any more than a loving parent is mad at an infant for not understanding the intricacies of physics or economics. God as parent loves us despite our limitations.

We should acknowledge here that this metaphor has its downsides. Not everyone experiences parental love that is kind and generous, and no human parent is perfect. And it’s also worth saying that although we use the term Father, we are not saying that God is a man; we can see qualities of mothers and fathers when we encounter God.

But despite those caveats, the image of God as parent is a powerful one, and it reminds us of something important that we should remember when we pray: like any good parent, God already wants what is best for us. That sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying again: God already wants what is best for us.

Prayer is not about talking God into giving us what we want, or trying to prove that we are faithful enough to deserve good things. Prayer is not a kind of cosmic manipulation, where if we get the words just right, our wish comes true. So when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he doesn’t say, “Okay, guys, here’s the secret. Here’s what you have to say.” He reminds them to start by saying, Father. God already wants what is best for you; you don’t have to get the words just right to get your message through.

And Jesus probably could have stopped the prayer right there, with the profound dynamic of parental love encapsulated in that single word, “Father”. But he continues, and I think the petitions that follow teach us something about ourselves.

If God is father, who are we? Well, children, of course, but what does that mean? What does our half of the relationship look like?

When I was growing up, I remember a cartoon that was on the bulletin board at church—maybe you’ve seen it—which shows a panicked student sitting at his desk, looking terrified, with the caption, “As long as there are exams, there will be prayer in schools.” They say that need is the great teacher of prayer. When we find ourselves in a tough spot, like an exam we didn’t study for, we naturally turn to prayer. Our needs bring us to our knees, and we turn to God for help.

When Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer, he teaches us to see that we are always in need. Take a look again at the words here, as Luke presents them, and see how plain and concrete this prayer is. This is not: “o thou everlasting and incomprehensible greatness, we do humbly beseech thee in thy lofty heights…” No. Jesus’s prayer is not flowery and ornate. It’s real. It’s for people who are hungry and need food. It’s for people who ache for God’s kingdom to come because they are suffering right now. It’s for people who have messed up and need to be forgiven. It’s for people who struggle with temptation. In other words, it’s for us. It’s for real people who are humble enough to admit they have real needs.

I wonder if that’s why it is hard to pray sometimes. We prefer to be in control, to be self-sufficient, to see ourselves almost as gods. But the truth is, we are always in need—of direction, of daily bread, of forgiveness, of protection. If you’re going to pray like this, it means taking on a posture of being dependent on God, and not sufficient by yourself. If you pray these words, it means you need God, and you are not God. You are a child.

Prayer allows us to see ourselves with the right perspective, the perspective of our relationship with God.

Jerusalem, Israel, is home to many holy sites and historic churches. One of those, atop the Mount of Olives, a short, steep walk away from the Temple Mount, is a church called the Pater Noster, which is Latin for… “our Father”. It is a site that came to be regarded as the place Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer. Architecturally, there are some 4th Century Byzantine ruins there, but the main attraction for most visitors is the courtyard containing 140 large, colorful ceramic plaques displaying the Lord’s Prayer, each one in a different language. You can watch tour groups search for and then flock around a particular plaque, depending on where they are from: Italian for this group, Swahili for this one, Arabic for another. There’s something magical about finding your own language, but also in seeing so many other translations of this same prayer.

Today, in churches all over the world—in Jerusalem, Beijing, Barcelona, Charlottesville—Christians will gather and recite these words, an amazing commonality that connects us all together. There will be different languages, different liturgies, different theologies, even slightly different wording. Catholics, for instance, do not include “For thine is the kingdom…”. Yet those differences don’t really matter, because this is not a magic formula we have to get just right to get God’s attention. The important thing is not even the words themselves, but the relationship that lies behind them. It is that relationship that is seen at the heart of the prayer Jesus teaches, that relationship with a God who is a parent who loves us and already wants what is best for us, not a distant authority figure to be appeased or manipulated. It is that relationship that we nurture when we pray.

So now, as we close, let us connect with God and unite with sisters and brothers around the world, as we pray once again the words that Jesus taught us, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:  for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

Choosing to Choose

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, July 17, 2016
Taken from Luke 10: 38-42

mary martha -by he huibing

Did you know that last Sunday afternoon, the files on my computer needed to be re-organized? Well, probably not. Actually, I didn’t either, until I should have been figuring out what to write for this sermon. All of a sudden, those files just absolutely must be categorized, sorted, and labeled. And then, the empty shoeboxes long gracing presence of the floor beside my bookcase, needed to move to their proper place in a closet down the hall. A news article caught my eye, with “Six tactics to keep your kids from becoming too materialistic” – seems worthwhile, how could I not check that out? 10 Exercises to Prevent Runner’s Knee? Well yeah, I don’t want that, better start reading!

Ahh, procrastination. We all have our favorite vices, and this has long been one of mine. If you ever come in my office and see my desk free of paper and my shelves nicely organized, either I’m really on top of things, or—more likely—there was something else that I should have been doing.

Not so with Martha. Oh, no. She is not to be deterred. Let’s get to work, she says. I’ve got things to do. No idle Facebook browsing for me, no barrage of online articles with click-bait titles, no meandering and re-organizing. Martha is efficient and productive, getting things done—the exact opposite of my procrastinating self. Martha is hard at work, and all the while, Mary sits in the other room doing nothing.

This is a familiar story for many of us, isn’t it? Mary and Martha have become type characters for us, representing two totally different ways of engaging the world. Mary and Martha. On the one hand, a life of contemplation, quiet, prayer; and on the other a life of action, busy-ness, work.

There is value in that comparison, to a point. I’ve heard lots of people over the years who’ve seen something of themselves in Martha, noting that the really should slow down and take a break. And that’s a valuable insight.

But today I want us to take another look into this passage to see if there is more we might find there.

After all, Jesus doesn’t actually say, “Some of you are like Mary, faithfully devoted: good for you. Some of you are like Martha, too busy all the time: cut that out.” There’s more to it than that.

So let me start, first of all, by defending Martha’s willingness to work. It’s worth saying upfront that the moral of this story is not that “doing is bad.”

“Doing” is not bad. Reading this story by itself might give you that impression, but, fortunately, this story doesn’t come by itself. When this story is put in context, the picture gets a lot more interesting. Let’s zoom out a bit and see where we are.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been working our way through the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, and this story picks up right where we left off.

Two weeks ago we read the story of Jesus sending out 72 of his followers. Do you remember that story? These 72 have been devotedly following Jesus around, listening, learning, being attentive disciples (kind of like Mary…), and eventually Jesus says, okay, that’s enough; time to get to work. Go! Get out of here! He sends them two by two to all the towns in the area, telling them to stay in people’s houses, relying on their hospitality. Eat and drink with them, heal the sick, teach them. Go and get to work!

Then, last week, we continued in Luke 10 to the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Here, the hero of the story is not the religiously devout priest or pious Levite, but the foreigner who stops and gets his hands dirty to help someone in need. This is tangible, concrete love of neighbor, and Jesus ends with the unambiguous command, “Go and do likewise.”

The very next verse brings us into Martha’s house, where Martha is hard at work, getting her hands dirty to care for Jesus, the neighbor she has welcomed into her own home, preparing a meal for him. It’s tangible, concrete love of neighbor. Faith in action, just like he commanded. Right?

No… Where did she go wrong?

It can’t be the fact that she was busy doing things. Jesus has made it abundantly clear that he expects a great deal of doing from his disciples. I don’t think Martha is wrong for getting to work. Jesus doesn’t tell her to kick back and watch TV.

What does Jesus say is the problem? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.”

Martha’s problem is: distraction.

[PAUSE.] Hmmm…. I was kind of hoping a fire truck would go by just now, or at least a cough or a sneeze.

We all know that distractions happen, including here at church. Earlier this week (when I was definitely not procrastinating!) I came across an article listing the “top 10 actual stories of preaching distractions,” a dramatic list of unplanned excitement during sermons. Here’s a taste: “A bat started flying low while I was preaching. Many people were screaming. Finally some of the men captured the critter. They actually had prayer over him and released him toward the Methodist church.” Here’s another: ““The pastor was ten minutes into his sermon when two police officers came in the service, pointed to a deacon to come out of the pew, handcuffed him and took him away. I thought the amazing thing was that the pastor kept preaching, but I was even more amazed that the deacon’s wife stayed for the entire service.” [from http://thomrainer.com/2013/04/top-ten-actual-stories-of-preaching-distractions/ ]

Distractions happen. They’re a part of life.

But what happens when distraction doesn’t just a momentarily interrupt our lives, but controls it?

What happens when we get so caught up in the trivial things, that we miss out when God turns up right beside us? Martha was so distracted by getting things ready for Jesus, she nearly missed the fact that Jesus was sitting in her living room!

Distraction takes our attention from what matters and puts our focus on things that don’t. Martha is distracted, so she’s not paying attention to what really matters.

I started this sermon by confessing my tendency for procrastination, noticing how different my aimless meanderings can be from a busy, productivity-machine like Martha. But if we realize that her problem is distraction, then maybe we’re not so different after all.

Martha’s brand of distraction is frantic activity, but distraction can also look like procrastination, or it can be financial worries, or family drama, or self-centered ambition, or chasing after the wrong goals. Distraction happens whenever we let something less important take the place of what really matters. It’s easy to get stuck there and live our lives focused on the wrong things.

So what are we supposed to do? What is it that this story teaches us? If Martha has gotten distracted, what is it that Mary did right?

I’m afraid Jesus says very little about Mary. There’s no “10 Easy Steps to being a good disciple.” What he does say about her is this: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Mary has chosen what is better.

My gut reaction to that is to think, “well, what did she choose?” What is it that’s better? Tell us more! But you know, I think the important thing here is not what she chose, but the fact that she chose. Mary has chosen what is better.

The antidote to distraction is choice: choosing for ourselves what matters, instead of doing whatever happens to come along. Instead of letting worries and distractions define your day-to-day life, choose to focus on what matters. Choose to choose for yourself. And then you can decide what to do.

Martha didn’t do that. She didn’t decide to ignore Jesus, but she also didn’t decide to pay attention. And so, autopilot kicked in and she got too busy to even think about where she should be.

So please don’t hear me wrong. The point of this sermon, and the point of the story of Mary and Martha, is not to tell you that you’re doing too much and that you should slow down. That may be true, but that’s for you to decide. Here’s the thing, though: you should decide. If you see that you’re doing things you don’t need to be, than decide to be done with those. That’s part of what this story teaches. But, just as important, if you want to serve God by all the things you’re doing, then by all means, choose to do that. Make the choice and enter your work with a deliberate intention to serve God and your neighbors through your actions. That is also a faithful choice.

To bring this back to UBC, I am so grateful for all the people here who do choose to love God and neighbor by their doing. During this past week, people in this congregation have taken meals to friends who were sick, decorated the stage for VBS, greeted people in the parking lot for a funeral service, prepared for and cleaned up after the reception, and written who knows how many emails about every aspect of church life. There are many faithful ways to serve God, and I don’t think the story of Mary and Martha means that doing such things is bad.

But it does suggest we should choose do those things deliberately, or we risk missing the point. Like Martha, we can get so busy serving God that we forget the amazing reality that God is right here with us, right now, in our houses, at our work.

Of course, life will happen. We’ll get preoccupied with our to-do lists, we’ll find ourselves too addicted to our smartphones and newsfeeds, things will happen that knock us off balance and in so many other ways we will come to realize that our lives are moving along on autopilot. And when that happens, I hope we’ll come back again to the story of Mary and Martha.

For the bulletin artwork today, there were many paintings to choose from, since so many artists have depicted the scene in Martha’s house. I’m sure you’ve also imagined it in your own mind. Most of these paintings have an angry, bitter Martha glaring over at a serene, saintly Mary. I didn’t pick one of those, because while that is a scene in the story, I don’t think the story ends there, with distracted Martha, but a few frames later when Martha has been invited to choose to join her sister before Christ. One sits quietly, and one stands with her hands full, but both are invited to choose the most important thing.

It took Martha (like most of us) a little while to get there. But even when she was distracted or preoccupied, Jesus interrupted her busy-ness and called out her name. Not with judgmental scolding, “Martha, Martha, Martha,” but with a calm, steady invitation: “Martha, Martha.” You don’t have to do that; you get to choose. And so do we.

So, choose. Look past the distractions, and take the reins of your life. Listen for the one calmly speaking your name to you, calling you into the fullness of your life, and choose to follow.

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