Matthew 20: 1-16

God Is With Us:

Walking Through The Gospel of Matthew

“Whatever Is Right”

Matthew 20: 1-16

            Can you imagine…

We all enroll in a class in college. It’s a class we all need for our major.  We hear good things about the professor. We all enroll because the professor actually came up to each of us and invited each of us, personally to take her class.

On the first day of the class, the professor handed out the syllabus, and when we all look it over, we can all see, it is quite obviously a difficult class. There’s lots of reading. There are lots of tests. There are lots of daily quizzes. There are lots of papers. It’s a demanding, really hard class.  As we all sit there in a stupor of dread, in a gaze of feeling overwhelmed, the professor started to speak.  In a gentle, peaceful voice she  told us  something that gives us all hope. It made me feel better, anyway; I am sure it made you feel better, too.

She told us, “Everyone in here will earn an A at the end of the class. All you have to do is come, and learn. If you accept my invitation to come to class, and I can tell you have learned something, I will give you an A.”

The professor allowed some students to enroll in her class a few weeks into the semester. We find out that she had gone out to the student union, at lunch time, and invited them to come to the class. You and I had been enrolled in the class since the very beginning of the semester.  We had been working very hard on all of the tests, quizzes, and papers. I can’t speak for you, but I personally was a little bit annoyed at these newcomers in the class. By the time the professor allowed them into the class, we’d already had one paper due, taken a major test, and had several quizzes. But I didn’t complain. It is the professor’s class.

Now this really got my gander up! About halfway through the semester—half way, just a day or two short of midterms—that same professor let another group of new students enroll into her class. She went to a football game, and at halftime, she went up to a huge group of students, and she invited them to enroll in her class.  We were practically at the midterms!  You and I had been in the class from the very beginning. We had worked incredibly hard, and we were all making good grades, well-deserved, good grades.  I almost complained at this one, but I didn’t. It was the professor’s class.

But then…

We were week, one week away from finals.  And were you as shocked as I was? That professor welcomed in another new group of students into our class. She had popped into a fraternity/sorority mixer, and she invited them all into her class, our class! The class was almost done!  I was shocked. I was angry.  I don’t know about you all. You all are better at masking your emotions than I am.  I bit my tongue. Oh, but I did give those new students, and the professor a shot or two of steely blue eyes, you know, the look… but I didn’t say anything.

I didn’t say anything until…

Oh! This angers me just to talk about it. That professor… She gave us all A’s. She gave us all A’s, you and me who had been in the class from the very beginning…But then I found out…She gave everyone A’s, not just us.  The students who came into the class a few weeks into the semester—they got A’s.  The students who came into the class around midterm—they got A’s.  The students who came into the class just a week before finals—they all got A’s, too.

I decided not to be nice. I decided…no, I didn’t decide it. I knew! I knew this wasn’t right. I knew this wasn’t just.  I went to her. I went to that professor, and I complained. I tried my best to use my deep voice, and not my normal squeaky voice.

I told her, I said, “Doctor. This just isn’t right. I respect your decision to give all your students A’s so long as they accepted your invitation, came to class and you could tell they had learned something. I was annoyed when you let students in a few weeks into the semester.  I was annoyed because I had been there from the beginning. I was also annoyed—very annoyed—when they got an A, just like I did.  I was irritated when you still let students into the class midterm. I was irritated because I had been in your class from the very beginning, and I, like all of us students who had been there since day one, have been working so, so hard, from the beginning.  I was incredibly irritated when those students got A’s, too, just like me.  Professor, Doctor—I wasn’t just annoyed. I wasn’t just irritated. I was angry, yes I was angry when you had the audacity to allow new students to come into your class just a week before finals.  Are you kidding me? I have been learning from you, and attending class faithfully all of these weeks. I, and many of us, haven’t missed a single class. But professor….Oh m gosh, professor, I am livid…I am absolutely livid that you gave all of those new students—students who missed fourteen out of fifteen weeks of our class—A’s too.  I, many of us, worked extremely hard. We have never missed a class.  We got A’s. But so did all of these other people who couldn’t have worked a third, or half as hard as I and we did because they just weren’t there. I, many of us, have been here, in this class since the very beginning. We have learned, Professor. We have learned!  These other folks, these folks who haven’t been in class nearly as long as we have—they couldn’t have learned half, or a third of what we who have always been here have learned! It isn’t right, Professor. It isn’t right, and I am upset.”

I told her this! I did.

And don’t you know… That professor, she just smiled at me. She just smiled at me, gave me a light tap on my shoulder, and she said, “Jeff, buddy. You are a good student. You are a good student, and you did work hard in my class. No one can ever take away from you all that you learned from all of your hard work from this class. You knew from the very beginning that  I said that anyone who came to this class would get an A, so long as they accepted my invitation, and learned something.” I was seething, and I am sure she could see it.  She just smiled again, and said very gently, “Jeff, it is my class.  I am allowed to set my grading standards, and my policies. I wanted to give out A’s to anyone who accepted my invitation. It’s my class. It’s my business. I wanted to give you an A. I wanted to give all of them an A. And I did.  The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

My story is different, but in many ways my story is the same as Jesus’ parable of the landowner, the landowner who gives everyone—the workers he hired at sunrise, the workers he hired at nine, the workers he hired at noon, and the workers he hired at five o’clock in the evening—the same daily wage.

It isn’t fair.

It doesn’t make sense.

It isn’t just.

No college dean, and no academic faculty would ever allow the professor in my story to get away with it.

No labor board, no judge would ever allow the landowner in Jesus’ parable to get away with it, either.

It isn’t fair.

It doesn’t make sense.

It isn’t just.

It is grace.

The decisions of the professor, the decisions of the landowner are sacred, and holy decisions, not rational, human decisions.   Thus those decisions are gracious decisions, decisions of heart over head, and decisions of a parent’s love over the children’s judgment.

Jesus invited the thief on the cross to walk with him in paradise.  That means when Peter got there—Peter who dedicated his whole life to Jesus; Peter, who was, like all the apostles, martyred out of their love and service for Jesus—he got to see a thief who followed Jesus for all of five minutes right there, right with the apostles and the mothers and fathers of the Church, with Jesus, in heaven.

Some people spend their lives in love with Jesus. We consider them saints.  Surely they are in heaven.  Some people make deathbed confessions and find deathbed grace leading them to deathbed conversions, and surely they are in heaven, too.

We have to ask about the murderers, the child abusers, the rapists, the molesters. We don’t want them to be in heaven with Mother Teresa, more importantly, with us.

But the professor says, “It’s my class. It’s my decision.”

But the landowner says, “It’s my land. It’s my money. It’s my decision.”

And the Lord Jesus says, “It’s my humanity. It’s my kingdom. It’s my cross. It’s my grace. It’s my decision.”

All I can do, all you can do, is accept the invitation of Lord Jesus. We accept the invitation just like those students invited by the professor with one week to go in the semester; just like those laborers invited to work by the landowner just an hour from quitting time.  All we can do is accept the invitation, and accept the grace so amazingly  offered as a gift of love to us.

 

Knowing our place, we leave the grading policy, the pay scale policy, and the invitation policy to the One the policies, the decisions belong to: the professor whose class it is; the landowner whose farm it is; the Lord whose earth, whose humanity, whose heaven, and whose love, it all is.

Being Human, Following The Divine

God With Us: Journeying Through The Gospel of Matthew

“Being Human, Following The Divine”

Matthew 16: 21-28

 

Simon Peter goes from being hailed as Jesus’ rock to being a mouthpiece of Satan in just a few short words. Poor Peter. Poor Jesus. Poor us. This world is just too hard to understand sometimes. Even Jesus, bringing love, bringing salvation, bringing hope and humanity to all of us, still yet, is just too hard to understand sometimes.

The events of the past week are hard enough to understand, and they happen in our times. Black men shot inhumanely by policemen for no earthly, justifiable reason; policemen executed like dogs when all they had done was give security to a peaceful demonstration. Men who wanted nothing more than to go home to their wives and children—a black man in a car, a policeman on the street—dead, with no earthly tomorrows, no next moment left to behold and cherish.

It is harder still for us to be expected to understand words and events from 2000 years ago, words from a time and a culture not our own.

But they are words from a rabbi, words from a savior, words from a Jesus very much our own.

And they are hard, very hard words to understand. They are harder still to accept.

If we really listen, though, and if we take these sacred words of Jesus to heart, then they will help us find peace, keep our courage, and regain our sense of humanity and love during times which can be oh so dark, and confusing.

First things first, my dear friends: Jesus isn’t calling Peter “Satan” in this scripture, though at first blush it appears so. No. Jesus is however, telling Peter his words remind Jesus of something he has heard Satan saying before. Many folks like to make a link between Peter telling Jesus to abandon his talk of destined suffering and death to the words of Jesus’ tempter many years before in the wilderness. Remember, Satan offered Jesus the world and all Jesus had to do was fall down and worship him.  In both cases, both speakers—Peter and Satan—try to convince Jesus to prove to the world who he is without showing humanity his love with  the essential  act of self- giving love of the cross.

The words Peter say echoes in Jesus’ memory with the same meaning and cadence of those long-ago words from Satan.

What Jesus is telling Peter is that he, Peter is doing something so very human, I do it, and maybe just maybe, you do it, too. “Peter, you are setting your heart, your mind, your imagination on earthly things, and not divine things,” Jesus says.

Jesus wants Peter, and us, to look up, but Peter is too busy looking around.

Jesus’ heart is set on all people—all people of all tribes, orientations, geography, even time—coming to wholeness in humanity and knowing peace in God. Peter’s heart is set on his people—probably Peter’s concern is most real for his immediate family and most friendly neighbors (that’s how most of us are, anyway…not just local but very local in care and concern) finding greater self-rule and autonomy from the Roman Empire.  Jesus’ worldview is cosmic; his concern for humanity universal.  Peter’s worldview is national;—sound familiar?—his concern for his own blood and neighborhood.

Jesus thinks about heaven coming to earth. Jesus thinks about the divine.

Peter thinks about the earth, and very specifically his own home. Peter thinks about the human.

We focus today on the broad expanse of this scripture, more so than the very specific details. I believe that this story captures the essence of the difference between Jesus and us. In our conversation about this story, we aren’t going to demonize Peter. We are Peter. In telling the story of this true, painful story in Peter’s life, Matthew the writer uses Peter as an archetype for me and you.

Jesus thinks holy, sacred thoughts. Jesus’ thoughts are expansive and cosmic.

We think small, sometimes petulant thoughts. Our concerns are often limited to self: self-preservation, self-promotion, and self-gratification. Often our selflessness, unselfish service and compassion is limited to those selves who look and think just like we do.

What we are talking about here, what this scripture addresses for us, is the timeless dance between the human, and the divine. As Christians, we constantly seek a balance between the two. We know we are human.  We celebrate our humanity.  Yet we are forever seeking the divine touch upon our humanness: divine reflection within our humanity; divine forgiveness of our sin; divine healing upon the scar tissue of our brokenness.

Shakespeare was right—we are all angels. Michael Shaara was right too though—if we are angels, then we must be “killer angels.”  Look around at our world.  Look around at our country.

So Christians seeks a balance between our God-created humanness, and the divinity in whose image we were created, and saved by. Actually, our Christian faith begins by seeking balance. When we first believe in Jesus and become Christian, we hold our humanness and Christ’s holiness, God’s divinity, in creative tension. Sometimes we fall back on very human thoughts and ways. Other times, what we think and what we do can be very sacred and divine.

That’s the beginning of our journey with Jesus. In the long journey of our faith, however, the goal isn’t balance. The goal is surrender.  We seek to surrender this very humanness to God in order to become more Christ-like, and indeed, more holy.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called this lifelong pilgrimage, this graceful transformation going on to perfection. We Methodists do indeed believe in going on to perfection. Do we believe that we can be perfect this side of heaven? No, of course not, but if you don’t seek, if you don’t stretch, you can never, ever grow.

Peter tries to talk Jesus out of the cross because Peter is just beginning his journey, the eternal journey of being Christian. Jesus understands, and he persists in his teaching of suffering, self-giving love, the cross, death, resurrection, new, healed life.

Jesus Christ, of course doesn’t need balance or surrender when it comes to humanness and divinity. Jesus was, Jesus is, at all times and for all times completely human, and completely divine, all at the same time. Sometimes we forget that, and we fall into a heretical trap which makes Jesus some kind of Clark Kent/Superman dualistic being:

Okay, when he went off in the Temple and cast the money changers out, that was human Jesus.

When he healed the leper outside the city gates, that was divine Jesus.

No. That isn’t Jesus. That’s Hollywood. Scripture and tradition, the 2000 plus years orthodoxy of the Church teaches us that Jesus forever holds his humanity and his divinity in perfect balance. Actually, they aren’t balanced in the sense that they exist half-and half within Jesus’ being. They comingle; they co-exist; they are in perfect harmony within Jesus very blood, within every atom of his sacred being.

It’s a mystery, to be sure, and a very essential, heavenly mystery.

We don’t seek balance so much as we seek surrender.

If we surrender our humanity to Jesus, then we can truly be beautiful, living together in the masterpiece of God’s earth, as God’s humanity.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Callina

My friends, in so many ways, doing a eulogy, making remarks of “Joys and Remembrances” for Callina McNair is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It is difficult because Callina was, is, a dear friend.  In so many ways, doing a eulogy, making remarks of “Joys and Remembrances” for Callina McNair is an incredibly easy thing to do.  It is easy because Callina was, Callina is, a remarkable human being whose humanity is marked with the finest attributes any person can have: love, compassion, friendship, and selflessness. Callina was, Callina is, a soul with a remarkable, highly developed and profoundly evolved faith, love, and witness for Jesus.

So my task this evening is hard.

So my task this evening is easy.

This evening, I propose to do two things. Actually, I will do three things, but the last thing I’ll do is try to tie the first two things together, and bring them to the beautiful conclusion Callina deserves. First, I will share with you my own personal, pastoral perspective of Callina.  Above all, my perspective of Callina is the perspective of a friend. Second, I want to share with you words from other people, words of love for Callina. Callina’s beloved husband, Tim, is a dear soul friend of mine, and Tim is also a tremendous writer.  Over the last few days, Tim has shared many precious words with me about his sweet lady, Callina, and I want to share some of Tim’s words with you, and I want to share them, by and large, in Tim’s own gifted words.

First, my words about Callina:

Written on Holy Saturday, March 26, 2016

At Books and Brews Coffee Shop, Hurricane, WV

The piano rested silently in its corner of the sanctuary. We had no one to play it. A couple of people had come and gone. They didn’t stay. The piano rested silently in its corner of the sanctuary, and its silence was deafening  when we considered worshiping God without it.

Then, one day, Callina was there. The silent piano started to sing again, and its song was a song of love and praise to God. Before any of us ever really knew the sweet, humble soul at the keys, the short figure sitting on the piano bench, we knew the depth, the quality, the love of each note, each touch from her hands to the ebony and to the ivory.

Our church was large, both in size of the congregation and in the size of the building. I had already served as Associate pastor for nearly two years when Callina came to us. I could still get lost in the building, and I certainly still didn’t know the names of all the 700 members of our congregation.

Somehow, within a short amount of time—months to my years, part time at the church to my full time—Callina found out about people, their gifts and their graces, in a way I simply was not. For instance, Callina found out a man in our church, who silently, faithfully, attended church at the 9:00 service sang beautifully. He sang with the voice of a tenor angel, and no one knew it. No one knew it, because due to a disabling sickness and innate shyness, this gentleman was never going to draw attention to himself by voluntarily joining the choir say, or asking for a special solo.  No one knew of this man’s gift of voice and song that is, until Callina and Tim heard him sing from his pew one Sunday morning.  When the Spirit led she and Tim to start a men’s gospel group, they recruited this gentleman. He said yes, and he became a part of the community, the family of this church like never before.  It wasn’t me, a pastor, or any other pastor, who lifted that man up and gave he and his wife so much hope, it was Callina. In lifting him up, Callina lifted the entire church up because God blessed the entire church with all the voices of all the vocalists in this church, including one man, one man who before Callina was there to listen, and to lift up by asking, simply sat, in silence.

Callina made other voices stand out. She started the Saturday Night Alive Gospel Group (SNAGG), and she always called them “her boys,” until she recruited a couple of ladies, too. Some of Callina’s greatest joys in her fruitful ministry in this church centered around that SNAGG group, watching it blossom and grow beyond the old Saturday night service here, into the Sunday services, as well.

Many times folks who were ill, or folks who were really struggling with something in their lives would receive one of Callina’s Prayer Bears before they received anything else from the church, including a pastoral call. Callina started the “Working Hands, Praying Hearts” ministry. With prayers and lots of love and skill, Callina made 500 of those little bears. She didn’t make them uniform, either, all one-and-the-same. Callina would find some way to make each of those bears unique to whatever the person was going through, or unique to their personality. I still cherish the little NASCAR race car driver Prayer Bear Callina and Tim gave to me once upon a time.

I observed Callina through the lens of friendship.

I observed, and marveled at Callina through the lens of ministry. Callina did ministry: loving, caring, authentic Christian ministry at LUMC, and I know, in Monroe County Schools, and in all the places she worked as a temp in North Carolina and New York.    I knew the glimpses and snippets of Callina’s compassionate work I was seeing here in Lewisburg was merely the surface of tremendous depths of many years of self-giving and compassion as Callina’s hands, her heart, and her voice did service to Jesus from folks from Maine and New York City to North Carolina and Monroe County.

Authenticity is a word folks like to bandy about as an attribute they admire in other people. It’s funny: most people like authenticity in other people, yet in our media and social media saturated world, it really is getting harder and harder to be able to tell what truly is a candid photo and what absolutely is one staged to create the illusion of candor; who truly believes what they are saying, and who says what they say because it is expected, it is normative.  How can one be truly authentic in an increasingly artificial world?

I loved Callina, I love Callina for so many of her positive, deeply human and Christ-attributes, including her authenticity. Callina and Tim McNair are just about as real of human beings as you can get. I mean that as a compliment. I mean it as one of the highest compliments I could ever give anyone.

On Wednesdays when I ran into Callina at The Wild Bean as she got herself caffeinated to keep up with the frenetic schedule here on Wednesday nights, or on Sunday mornings when I would come rambling up the steps, the bundle of raw, nervous energy that I am, I always found Callina real: real in her love; real in her peace; real in her dedication to doing what she was doing out of pure love for Jesus, and for Jesus’ church.

Callina and Tim’s home on Second Creek in Monroe County became for me over the years something of a sanctuary.  Their lovely long cabin which is a perpetual renovation-in-progress is a real home, a home where friends are welcome, a home where friends are wanted.  I ate some good food and had some wonderful conversations with Callina and Tim on that porch overlooking the emerald green meadows where cows and deer fed and where birds sang. That home, reflecting the heart of its owners, is an authentic place of welcome, nurturing care, and love. Callina loved that home, especially the porch.  On that porch, she always marveled at the peepers, and the color and song of spring.

I was honored that my work as associate pastor of LUMC intersected with Callina’s work here. I was honored that the friendship Callina, Tim, and I built during our times working together here lasted long after I left. Callina and Tim visited, and sang in my church in Ona, Bethesda UMC.  That little church between Milton and Barboursville, just this side of the Mud River outside Huntington,  loves Callina too, and was blessed by her gift of song.  We all met at Tamarack for lunch a few times over the years in between longer visits at home.  As badly as she was beginning to feel, Callina still played for Kelly and my wedding, and she and Tim sang a song for us. We will always be grateful. We will always cherish that memory: Callina’s gorgeous playing, and the sound of Callina and Tim’s voices in sweet harmony together.

I will forever remember Callina as the sweet lady who made a silent piano sing again.  I will remember Callina as the good soul who was always listening to others, always encouraging others—even me—to not be afraid to sing.  It wasn’t performance. It wasn’t a show. It was worship. It was love. Every note, every word, every melody, every chord was to, and was for, Christ.

Now, those are my words for Callina.

Now, I want to share a few of Tim’s words. Then we’ll close with another couple of special words.

As I mentioned to you a few moments ago, Tim blessed me over the last week with words he wrote about his beloved wife, Callina. For Tim, I know this writing was cathartic; it was an emotionally healing process, and a labor of love. I thought about weaving some of Tim’s words among my own, but I finally decided that I wanted Tim’s words to stand on their own. A good man, a good husband has the right for his words about his beloved one to stand on their own.

About Callina’s gift of music, Tim writes:

Music was her JOY, her “direct line” to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. For her, music was a solace, an inspiration, a solace, an anodyne for hurts caused by life’s pressures and injuries; and as important as it was for her personally, it was that service to God that drove her to do the best she could do, offer her own inspirations, to wrap the new in something comfortable, the old in something fresh, and to help provide the seamlessness of effective, corporate worship in loving and creative ways. She worked tirelessly, and recently, against the assaults on her energy and health to study, research, to arrange, play and even to compose music to best achieve an offering of types and styles of music, and to best deliver God’s Word and Love in song. She didn’t think that she was doing anything special—she saw it as “what she was supposed to do.”

Tim continues,

Music for Callina was also the common language of Christians and other believers that she felt would make the world a better place, and which positions us in healthy associations, and the ability to all sing in the language of love.

Tim noted that Callina fell in love with music early in her life, and music took Callina to incredible places. In the magical city of New York, Callina worked in Harlem with the Boy’s Choir. Earlier in life she played the violin and was the fiddler in Fiddler On The Roof. She also taught at the Bridgeton Academy in Maine, and Tim once got to meet one of Callina’s former students, then a professional opera singer. Callina’s sister Sheryl said that when Callina played piano better than her after Callina had only been playing for a year and she had been practicing for ten years, “it pretty much showed the difference between art and skill.” At the piano, Callina was an artist.

Writing so beautifully about their courtship, Tim writes about how he and Callina met, through Callina’s work as the accompanist and choir director at a small Methodist church which Tim attended with his first wife Cassi. Callina was a friend to Tim and Cassi. When Cassi died, Callina was there to support Tim, along with the rest of the church. I’ll let Tim pick it up again from here. He writes:

After a respectful period, Callina sent me a card inviting gme to dinner and to sing, so I (since I don’t enjoy eating out as most folks do) invited her to bring her keyboard, and let me cook. That was it for me…I was praying to find someone and be spared the trauma of dating. She was praying to either be made happy to be single, or to find a man who wasn’t a ‘jerk,’ as she put it. A mutual friend was explaining to God how good it would be to put Callina and Tim together.

I know we are all grateful to that mutual friend, and her or his way of ‘splaining things to God.

As God brought Tim and Callina together, so God—our God of love!—brought Callina into Tim’s loving family. “She inherited the older boys at more advanced ages, and didn’t get to see them in infancy. As with the older boys, she and Ayden became fast friends, especially when she would get down and play cars or ball…or just patiently listen to the youthful explanations of life in general.”  Thomas and Joseph spent lots of time with Callina doing arts and crafts, going to ceramic shops, and becoming experts in the board game, Sequence.

To her newfound daughter, Melanie, Callina helped further enrich a love for music, and for music theatre.

Callina came to her new relationship and deeply enriched my life and the lives of my family,” Tim writes. She was always able, throughout her journey to now, to find ways to keep the music going…

            Keeping the music going. That is indeed what Callina did, and now in Christ’s heart and in Christ’s heaven, does. Callina keeps the music going.

Now, in closing, I want to share with you some other special words. As special as Tim’s words are, these words are even more special. They are Callina’s own words, in a testimony she gave here at LUMC, back in November.  I was not able to be at worship that morning, although I desperately wanted to be, due to commitments and plans in my own church. I was able to be a part of it though, because Callina sent me a copy of her manuscript. I was honored when she did so. I am so grateful now that I forever have Callina’s written words for myself.  Let us here again, in my voice, Callina’s voice:

She describes her love for her coworkers at Mountain View School, and she speaks of a bookmark a friend gave her, with the words of Proverbs 3:5 stitched on it. “Trust the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” That is how I have tried to live each day, trust the Lord with all my heart. What if this is not an earthly healing? Am I ready to die? One step in front of the other, no matter how tired, sick, or brain fogged. One foot in front of the other and trust that good will come out of this illness. Trust that God in some way will be glorified. To not trust God after all the blessings he has given me would be a rejection of Him and all he has brought me through in my life, and would be a great rejection of Him and all He’s given me. Not trusting God will only bring despair to me. I have to trust as his Beloved child that all he wants for me is good. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future, and a hope.”

Callina closed her testimony with an authentic, loving message that God loves us. “You see, I think that this life is a school, with one lesson to learn—how to love,” Callina wrote, and said that day. “I will trust God, because I know that I am his beloved child. I am loved by God!”

With her words, both written and played, Callina’s life was, and is, all about keeping the music going.

This evening, I close with words of peace and love, for you, for me, for Callina, for the world. These words are Callina’s, from her song, “Rest In The Arms of Jesus Today.”

Rest in the arms of Jesus today.

Rest in his peace, its just a moment away.

Today may be easy, or filled with dismay,

Just take a moment, and rest in the arms of Jesus, today.

In the name of ou

Lent 3, 2016

Thank God That God is God 

Isaiah 55: 1-9

Luke 13: 6-9

 

Imagine being captured by an aggressive force, and taken to a far away country, far away from your home. Imagine no longer living in your own house you’ve worked so hard to make home, or no longer having your own land to till and cultivate. Imagine no longer being able to come to your own church every week: the church of your family, the church you, your children, and perhaps even your parents and even your grandparents were baptized in. Imagine the sadness of a soul looking out to the farthest horizons, seeing no tree, no seeing no river, seeing no mountain, seeing no meadow, seeing no desert where the sun pours  its light and casts a shadow in a way familiar, known, and loved.

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion…

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.

So the Psalmist wrote, and so the Psalmist prayed in the 600s BC, when the Jewish people from the southern kingdom, Judah, found themselves in captivity in Babylon.  They were far away from their family homes. They were far away from their faith’s home, the Temple which Solomon built, in Jerusalem. They were war refugees. They were immigrants not by choice. A people whose family story reached back to “a wandering Aramean” who was their father; to inhumane oppression as slaves in Egypt; to a forty year odyssey to freedom and a country of their own; to at last a united, strong nation-state under David and Solomon; to civil war, disunity, and finally a fall, first to Assyria, and later to Babylon

What a story these folks had.

What a story these folks had to look back to.

Even by those strange waters of Babylon, resting in the unfamiliar shading of unfamiliar trees wrought by the light of a sun blanketing unfamiliar landscapes, those Jewish refugees from Judah could remember, and tell, their story.

That reminds me of us West Virginians. That reminds me of us Appalachians.

For many years, Appalachians have lost their homes, or been forced to leave their homes, by economic forces far beyond their control. By the latter, I am speaking about folks we all know—maybe at one point, even us—who have had to leave their West Virginia Appalachian  homes to earn a living somewhere else. The Carolinas and Ohio are filled with folks from these hills and hollows who had to leave their familial homes to find a fair shot at a decent living, folks who didn’t want to leave, but had to, after the mine shut down or the plant downsized.  They had to leave in order to economically survive.  By the former, I am thinking about those folks, particularly early in West Virginia history, who lost their little family farms when they sold the mineral rights for next to nothing to outside coal operators, and found in time, their land no longer tenable for farming, no longer fit for a family to live on.

Like the Jewish people of Judah, West Virginians, Appalachians, know how to pray to God when home seems so very far away.

Many writers have written about leaving their Appalachian home, and finding later that in their absence, that home has not remained static. That home has changed, and so often for ill. In Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam writes so eloquently about the slow decay of his once proud mining town, Coalwood. Even the mine where deep within so many strong, brave men such as his father toiled and served and provided for their families, their company, their state, and their nation,  now wastes in floods of water. Thomas Wolfe painfully, mournfully wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, though in later years, just before his death he did return to his mother’s boarding house in Asheville, only to find out (as he described in an essay, one of the last pieces he would ever write) you can go home again, but things will never be the same.

In my little book Becoming Pastor, I describe a beautiful day, a singular, unified memory I will cherish forever, of driving my grandmother back down to McDowell County to see some of her beloved homeland, from the family home in Elkhorn to the company store in Upland.  While overall the trip, and the day spent grandson with grandmother, was incredibly positive, I will always remember my grandmother’s soft blue eyes welling up with tears when she saw old cars with jungles of weeds growing around them in her old front yard, and the trash piled up on the once elegant, wrap around porch where she used to sit with my granddad when he came courting.

We can go home again, but home will have changed. We will have changed, too.

It was a frail, white haired lady with hands all gnarled up with arthritis, and arms all bruised because of blood thinners and walls and doors that seem to move on rest room journeys in pitch black midnight, who I took to Elkhorn and Upland that day. Those places were not the vibrant places of commerce and home life they had been in the 1920s, and my grandmother was not the dark haired, supple young lady she had been there, either.

Change comes, whether we are home or not. Change comes within ourselves, as well.

Biblical scholars and Old Testament theologians have come to a general consensus these days which the Jewish folks both Isaiah and the psalmist were writing to back in the 600s B.C. could never, ever believe. The scholarly consensus is this: The Babylonian exile, though traumatic and disorienting to those who endured it, actually made Judaism a stronger faith, and the Jewish people a stronger community.

Like the nationhood of Judah,  the Babylonian conquest destroyed the Temple. Prior to the Exile, the center of religious life for Jews was the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the conquest.  During the Exile, Jewish rabbis built little places of worship and study called synagogues.  Within those spaces, far away from Jerusalem, folks could study Torah, remember the Covenant, and worship God.  Before long, those folks came to see those spaces between the walls of the little synagogues built by their own hands, were indeed sacred spaces.

When the Babylonian captivity ended when Cyrus overran Babylon and let the Jews return home. Some actually chose to stay in Babylon. Those who returned home did take it upon themselves to rebuild the Temple. Now though, people also built their own places of worship and study, their own synagogues within their own villages and towns.  This development lead to a faith, and a community, far more closely bound together within their families and within the extended family of their immediate community. It did something else though, seemingly contradictory.  Folks who had survived the Babylonian Exile with their faith in God intact realized their Jewish faith, their Jewish identity, was really not bound by land, or space.  They had discovered that a Jew can be a Jew anywhere. They discovered that with law and covenant in their hearts, and in their minds, with places of worship and community built to bring a sense of home far away from home, a Jew could be a Jew anywhere in the world, and certainly far outside the walls of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Babylonian Exile placed within  the shared, community, family memory of the Jewish people an experience which when reflected upon and processed,  would enable the faith, the community, the family, to endure, to survive everything from the oppression of the Roman Empire to the pogroms of the Middle Ages, to the horror of the  Holocaust.

An experience of leaving home helped a community adapt and learn to survive.

West Virginians and Appalachians who have had to leave home have had similar experiences.  Folks who have to leave the mountains to find work along the coast or in flatlands gain new insights into their homeland.  Home may be different when they come home, but sometimes those who leave can see beauty where those who are familiar only see mundane. No one, perhaps, has written more poetically about the coal mine camps of McDowell County more artfully than Homer Hickam, a man who hasn’t lived in West Virginia for decades. Sometimes home has to be in the mind and in he heart, and there home is more real.

Today’s scripture actually goes back into the heart of the Babylonian Exile. Some scholars say the Isaiah writer wrote within the Exile itself. Others feel the writer wrote these words as memory, just years after the Exile. Either way, they are words of hope. Either way, they are words of praise and prayer. Either way, they are words written by a heart who is convinced that God will deliver. God will deliver us home.  Imagine, for a moment, Isaiah writing these words even as he and all his people are captive in Babylon, a people without autonomy, a people without self determination. Isaiah writes the voice of God:

Incline your ear, and come to me;

Listen, so that you may live.

I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast love for David.

Far away from home, comes a prayer for home. Far away from home, comes a promise from God:  I still love you. I will always love you.

These words make me want to proclaim, to shout, Thank God that God is God. These words, coupled with the little parable Jesus told in Luke, mame me want to proclaim, to shout, Thank God that God is God….and I am not God,, and you are not God.

There in Luke, Jesus tells a story about a certain very compassionate gardener. The landowner wants a particular, sickly, unproductive fig tree to be cut down and burned up.  The gardener though, promises that if that fig tree will get a reprieve; if the landowner will just allow the fig tree to live, one more year, he will nourish it and care for it, and just love it generally.  The gardener bets on the promise of his own hard work, and the goodness of the soil, the sunshine, and the rain, to make that little fig tree come back to life.

So many times, I have mowed down or pulled up plant life in my yard that appeared dead.

So many times, I have turned away from, and blocked out people in my life who spiritually, emotionally seemed dead.

A few times, I have felt like the one mowed down, pulled up, turned away from, and blocked out.

Thank God that God is God, and I am not God, and you are not God.

Thank God home will always be there. Though home does change, so do we. Thank God that in the midst of human, life change, God’s love for each and every human life remains the same: evergreen, eternal, light-bursting.

Let us pray.

Lent 2, 2016

“Heavenly Living”

Philippians 3: 17-4:1

My sister Monica recently moved to Pensacola, Florida.  She was just up here, in Ona for a visit with my parents on Friday. We all had a wonderful time together.  It was good catching up. Texts, emails, Facebook posts, and phone calls are all good, but nothing beats actually being together. Much of our conversation revolved around my sister’s new life in Florida. She told me that in Pensacola, when you tell the cashier at Publix that you have pop in your buggy, they have no idea what you are talking about. In Pensacola, in Publix, you have soda in your shopping cart.

I can recall many times over the years, when folks have laughed—usually lovingly—at some of my southern West Virginia colloquialisms. It often happens here, actually. I’ve heard little giggles and shrugs occasionally here at Bethesda when I say something the way we say it down home in Princeton.

These are funny, down home illustrations of how folks are different culturally, depending on where we live and where we are from. We are all human beings. We are all God’s children. Biologically we are identical. We would be naïve, even not truthful, however, if we declared that we are all one hundred percent, completely the same. Of course we are different. We are different in our personalities, in our talents, and in our outlook. There are differences in culture too. We can speak about cultural differences we have with our sister and brother human beings across the globe. We can speak about cultural differences we have with our sisters and brothers who live in different states, or even in different parts of our own West Virginia.

We are all human.

We are all sacredly the same.

We are all human and we are all wonderfully different.

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter, Philippians, the great apostle calls for us to embrace and accept a new culture of Christian living, of Christian being. This new culture of Christianity should not consider itself better than or in any way superior to any other culture. The culture of Christianity should though, be self-aware, self-conscious, and strategically and authentically lived out.

New Testament scholar James Efird calls Philippians Paul’s most personal letter. Unlike some of his letters which are written in large part to correct bad behavior within the church (always teaching foundational Christian theology at the same time) Philippians reads like a long, loving thank- you letter to a church Paul dearly loved.  Paul founded the church at Philippi on his Second Missionary journey.  Now, Paul has been imprisoned by Rome, either in Rome itself or Ephesus.  A member of the Philippian church,  a  gentleman named Epaphroditus, came  to Rome or Ephesus with a gift for Paul. While visiting Paul, Ephaproditus got sick, but he is recovering. In many ways, Paul seems to lift up the Philippians as being the kind of Christians we all need to be.

Paul calls this church, these folks “my joy and my crown,” and he tells them they are folks “whom I love and long for.” While Paul writes much about God’s grace freely given to us through Jesus, he is still a pretty tough character to impress and satisfy. He considers these Phillip church folk something special. Still, he counsels them to follow him, and all of the really dedicated Christians around them. Paul warns them that there are “enemies of the cross”

Who are these enemies? Well, they seem to be self-indulgent people. Paul says “their god is their belly” and “their glory is their shame.” Philippi was a crossroads city on the  Via Egnatia, or the Roman Rome.  Roman soldiers were rewarded for the service to the Empire with a piece of land all their own there.  In other words, the Philippi of the first century was not a charming, rustic little village.  It was a busy, buzzing place.  More than likely, folks there worshiped a wide variety of gods and had a wide variety of religious practices. More than likely, Philippi suffered from big-city problems like crime, and abuse.  Within this context, Paul calls for his friends to not fall into the non-Christian, selfish culture around them. He challenges them to build a Christian culture within their community together, a culture built on selfless love and grace, the same selfless love and grace of the cross.

Creating a Christian culture within a non-Christian culture was challenging for Christians in the first century when our faith was still so new. Surely we can all attest, building a Christian culture within a non-Christian culture in the twenty-first century is pretty challenging too, and downright hard.

It’s easy being a Christian on Sunday morning at church. It’s easy being a Christian when we are surrounded by other Christians. For many of us, Monday morning dawns upon a non-Christian culture we have to navigate and live in at work, at school, cruising up and down the interstate, or walking down the sidewalk, as we simply live our lives.

A non-Christian culture sexualizes everyone and everything. A non-Christian culture sells us everything which we really do not need, reducing our humanity to nothing more than who we are as consumers. A non-Christian culture demeans people—a kid gets bullied at school; a worker gets berated in front of her peers. A non-Christian culture is obsessed with violence and considers the quest for peace sissy or boring.

And we cannot, any of us, cloister ourselves away in a monastery or huddle up together in a commune. We have to live; we have to thrive within this non-Christian culture. We have to love in an often unloving world. We have to not judge in an all too often judging world. We have to pray and believe in an often mocking world.

How do we do so?

We insist on calling Coca Cola or Pepsi “pop” even when everyone else around us calls it “soda.” We navigate our “buggies” up and down the aisles of Publix even though everyone else in line has their “shopping carts.” In other words, we are authentic to who we are.  We are authentic to who we are, and we are true to where we are from.

I am a southern West Virginian, tried and true. I will say ‘ya’ll” and “I reckon” probably until I die.  That’s okay. That’s authentic. That’s true. That’s real.

Paul challenges us to remember where we are from.

Really, I’m not from Princeton and you’re not from Ona. As God’s children, our citizenship, Paul says, is in heaven.  You are a citizen of heaven. I am a citizen of heaven.

During the long years of the Roman Pax Romana, citizens of Rome merely had to say that: “I am a citizen of Rome,” and their citizenship of the Empire would be respected. Even foreigners would respect the civil rights of a citizen of Rome. Even Paul played the “citizen of Rome” card when he was imprisoned in the book of Acts. Being a citizen of Rome meant something. Being a citizen of Rome defined you. Being a citizen of Rome protected you.

Living in a non-Christian culture all around us, you and I need to learn to think to ourselves, “I am a citizen of heaven.” Such citizenship, such faith defines us, and protects us.  When we remember we are citizens of heaven, with humility and selfless love, we can build together a real, authentic, true Christian culture within the larger culture.  This Christian culture must begin individually, in our hearts. It must grow from each of our individual hearts, connecting us all within the church with a heart, with a culture truly, deeply, profoundly loving, selfless, Christian. May we seek to build this culture during this holy season of Lent.

Let us pray.

Lent One, 2016

“The Call To Give”

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

 

On April 3, 1968, a young black pastor concluded a sermon with these words.

 

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

 

The next morning, April 4, 1968, the young black pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, was murdered. I’ve always thought, and many people have long thought, that the Holy Spirit must have been whispering to Dr. King, not just during the long, righteous journey of his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, but particularly on that evening. God wanted Dr. King to know his work for human rights, for dignity, for equality for all, was indeed the work of the cross, the work of Christ. Sometimes the work of God’s righteousness, the work of Christ, leads to suffering, and even death. The work of the cross after all, most fundamentally, was death. Thanks be to God though, the cross-death of Jesus lead, and leads to resurrection, new life, righteous life.

 

The last public words of Dr. King are filled with biblical imagery, imagery which our scripture today also points us to.  In today’s scripture, the children of Israel are just on the cusp of entering the Promised Land.  Moses, like Dr. King, has sojourned with God on the mountain, and on the mountain, God has given Moses all of these laws—laws of covenant love—to give to the people. Moses, like Dr. King, knows he will not get to the Promised Land.  He’s seen it though. In God’s good laws of compassion and community, Moses has seen the contours, the boundaries, the depths of the riches of this land.

Before his people cross over into the good land of God’s promise, Moses reminds the people, one more time, of whom, and whose they are.

“My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien…”

The poetic beauty of this story stirs my soul.  God instructs Moses that before the children of Israel get to go home to their new land, the land promised Abraham in covenant so many years before, Moses needs to tell their story one more time.  It’s as if God is saying:

You are about to get home, at last. But before you get there, I want you to remember who you are. I want you to remember what you’ve been through. I want you to remember who got you through what you’ve been through, and who has guided you, with love, home.

Thus so many of the precepts we find in Deuteronomy, additions, layers, new depths of the original law, the Ten Commandments, involve the children of Israel’s treatment of each other as the children of God, and their treatment of all other people who are children of God, too. Through Moses, God instructs the children of Israel to take care of the resident aliens, the immigrants, the refugees in their land. God reminds them they were once—and not very long ago, either—resident aliens, refugees themselves.

A wandering Aramean was my father….

And when Jacob’s children were given sanctuary in Egypt, when the pharaoh Joseph served died, before long, that family, Abraham’s family, the family of covenant, the family of promise, became slaves in Egypt….

Before the people became a people with their own land, a people with their own sovereignty and freedom, God knew to keep them humane and compassionate, they needed to hear again the words of their own story, the story of their own history.

This was fitting scripture for Dr. King to preach to American too: America, the country of the children and grand children and great grandchildren of immigrants, slaves, and indigenous people, all who had a story, a history of a hard life in the wilderness before coming home to the Promised Land.

As Christians, particularly during this Lenten season, we need to remember our story, our stories. As I see it, we have three stories to remember. Remembering these stories should keep us humane, and compassionate.

First and foremost, of course, we need to remember the story of God’s son, God-in-humanity, Jesus Christ. We need to remember, we need to cherish, we need to find our faith in the story of Jesus; the eternal story of the suffering, the crucified, and the risen Lord and savior of all humanity.

Second, we need to remember these earlier stories too: the stories of Israel, from Abraham’s wanderings chasing a Covenant, to the sad tears of slavery in Egypt, to the long journey home following Moses and God’s new law.  The story of Jesus comes out of this earlier tradition, and one cannot really understand, or even love Jesus, without understanding and loving God’s audacious love for the folks of the Israel. The story of that love stands as  a witness, and a story pointing to God’s love for all people.

Third, we need to remember our own individual stories. We need to remember all the wildernesses of brokenness, loneliness, and sin which the love of Jesus saves us from and leads us home, out of.  When I remember all Jesus saves me from—all the dark places I have been; all the hurt I have both endured and inflicted—that keeps me humane and compassionate towards you and all other people.

So today’s scripture calls us into memory. God calls us to remember; God calls us to tell these stories.

And there is more.

God gives the children of Moses very specific instructions for their worship, for their living.

You shall take some of the first fruits…of the soil which you harvest from the land which the Lord, your God gives you…[and]you shall go to the place which the Lord, your God chooses as his dwelling place of his name

God asks Israel, God asks us, for the first fruits of our lives.

For this agrarian culture who inhabited the Promised Land all those years ago, their gifts of the “first fruits” of the soil literally did mean the fruit and the grain which they grew for their sustenance.

We each have to ask our own heart, “To be faithful to God who loves me so, what are the first fruits of my life?”

Remember what Moses says. Moses is very strategic in saying the children of Israel are giving God the first fruits of the land which God gives them.  In other words,  the people’s offering of first fruit reminded them that everything around them: from the rich, life-giving earth, to the sky above and all the humanity around, belong to God.

What are the first fruits of your life?

What are the first fruits of my life/

I think for us non-farmers today, our first fruits are our talents, our passion, and our time. If you think about it, the most sacred gift any human can give to God, or to any other human being, is the gift of time.  My life, your life, is made up of whatever time we have alive on this planet.  Giving someone else our time—in conversation over coffee, in a hug after church, in helping a child with homework—is a sacred gift, the most sacred gift.

My first fruit.

Your first fruit.

Our time.

Our energy.

We have to give to God the best of what we have to offer. I believe when we give of ourselves to our family, we give to God. When we give to our spouse, when we give to our children, when we give to our parents, we are giving to God.  Sometimes the people we are absolutely closest to—the people who love us the most and the people we love the most: our family—gets not our first fruit, but they get old, crusty, molded leftovers.

When we are too tired from work to spend significant time with our spouse or our children, we are not giving them our time, our energy, our love, our first fruits. In denying them our best selves, we deny God our best selves, those first fruits.

When I think about parents giving their children the sacred gift of time, I can’t help put recall the old pop/folk song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin. Download it later on I-Tunes or You Tube.  The first part of the song describes how the dad has no time for the young son. The young son grows up without his dad.  Later in life, the aged  dad asks his grown son to come and visit him.  The grown son responds to his aged dad with just the same words his dad used with him all of those years ago.

We owe our families our first fruit.

When we deny them our best gifts, negative consequences will follow, though those negative consequences may be years in developing.

God gave the children of Israel the Promised Land.

God gives us our families.

Giving our first fruits then, means giving God what God has already given us.

But there is more.

Our church is our family, too. Just as we owe our spouses, our children, our parents the first fruits of our humanity, so too do we owe our church first fruit.  Am I talking here about our monetary offering to church? Sure I am!  When we give our offering to God, again, we are giving back to God what already belongs to God.  There is more though. Our first fruit to the church isn’t just our money. The most important first fruit we can offer the church (and an offering to church is an offering to God) is ourselves.

Are you in church?

Are you active in church?

Are you giving this church—and by extension are you giving God—your first fruit: your talent, your energy, your sacred gift of time?

The season of Lent is our holiest season of all.

The season of Lent is our time to examine ourselves: Am I right with God?

The season of Lent is our time for new beginnings with God, following the suffering love of the cross, Jesus.

Certainly Jesus the Son is God the Father’s first fruit.

Today I must ask myself the hard question: “Am I giving God my first fruit?” If my first fruit isn’t going to God, isn’t going to my family, isn’t going to my church, then who in the world is it going to?

A tough question.

An essential question

A tough, essential question for the Christian to ask during Lent, and always.

Let us pray.

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday, 2016

Begin Again, Again

Ash Wednesday, 2016

Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

 

Tonight, we begin again, again.

 

Many of us consider New Year’s Day a new beginning. We stay up late to watch the ball drop in Time’s Square; we stay up late with our loved and our friends. We want to be awake when the New Year starts because the New Year is a new beginning for us. The New Year encourages us to begin again, again.

 

Of course, there are some of us Christian calendar devotees (or liturgical nerds, if you want to be more brutal) who consider the First Sunday of Advent the liturgical, sacramental New Year.  Those of us with that perspective begin again a month before anyone else.

 

Still others of us consider our birthdays a new beginning. We mark time by our own age, by the year of our lives more so than any sacred or worldly calendar. We look back on our lives, our joys, our loves, our accomplishments, our regrets, our sorrows  from birthday to birthday.  When our birthday rolls around then, that is our time to consecrate a New Year. That is our time to begin again, again.

 

And some of you might be just as addled as me, and see all three days as New Year, the day to begin again, again.

 

Addled or not, tonight I want us to throw in one more day, one more evening, one more celebration—this one liturgical and sacred—to mark for us a New Year, a God given time and space to begin again, again.

 

The Christian church has celebrated Ash Wednesday since at least the 1000’s.  Before that, the Early Church celebrated Feast Days, and Easter and Christmas began as Feast Days.  By the Mid Ages the church recognized the need for Christians to have a day at the beginning of Lent which was not a celebratory feast day, but instead a call for repentance, a call for sackcloth and ashes, a call for deeper prayer and dedicated fasting. We see many Old Testament roots for Ash Wednesday, from God’s call to the prophets Joel and Daniel, and in the stories of Jonah where God called for the people of Nineveh to repent, and lead by their king, they did.

 

We are indeed in our second thousand years beginning again, again on Ash Wednesday.  And it is an odd day. And it is a beautiful day.

 

From dust you were created. To dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

 

I will say those words to each of you as you come up this evening to receive your ashes.  It isn’t exactly a “peace and love, it’s all good” refrain, now is it? I think anyone accusing me, or any other moderate mainline Protestant pastor of being too liberal, too touchy-feely, not nearly ‘hellfire and brimstone’ enough should come to an Ash Wednesday service.

 

There’s nothing more harsh than telling people that they were dust, they are dust, they are going to be dust.  There’s nothing more not politically correct than telling people, “You are going to die. You better repent. You better get right with God.”

 

That’s our message on Ash Wednesday.

 

I am mortal. You are mortal. We are going to die.  We must repent, and believe in the sacred love of Jesus.

 

It may not be a warm, fuzzy message, this Ash Wednesday liturgy and ritual, but it sure is beautiful.  It sure is essential. It sure is Christian.  Remember, the caveat to the harshness, “From dust you were created, to dust you shall return,” are the words, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

 

In other words, you are human, and I am human. We have far more in common than we can ever have in differences.  One of the great commonalities between us is, there isn’t one of us who will make it out of this world alive.  I’m going to die. You are going to die.

 

But Jesus lived. And Jesus lives.  Because Jesus lives, your life, and my life has purpose and meaning. Because Jesus lives, you have dignity and I have dignity. Because Jesus lives, you are a person of sacred worth, and I am a person of sacred worth. Because Jesus lives, we can be saved by love. We can be redeemed by hope.  Out of our ashes, new life can rise, and walk, and live.  Out of these ashes we can begin again, again.

 

Dust, a sign of the most basic origin of life; dust, the matter of something once alive now dead, will be placed on our foreheads, but not in an ugly, meaningless mess.  The ashes will be fashioned into the cross, the sign, the place, the source of saving love, redemptive hope, eternal life.

 

To begin again, again we must be willing to embrace both the ashes of our mortality, and the cross of God’s love. We must also pay special heed to the words of our Savior from Matthew.

 

Jesus words about appropriate piety and private prayer occur during his masterpiece Sermon on the Mount.  Remember that the Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes, or the blessings. The Beatitudes in particular, and the Sermon on the Mount in general, are often seen as Jesus’ corollaries to the Old Testament law of Moses: from the Ten Commandments, to all of the morality codes, all of the layers God puts on the Ten Commandments, in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

 

Through Moses, God gives us all the Ten Commandments, the “thou shall not’s,”  as a way to protect the dignity of human life, in an effort to protect the sacredness of  all human life.  Later, God gives us all of the other law  codes, for instance the command of Deuteronomy for the children of Israel to leave enough grain and fruit for strangers, aliens, widows, orphans, to glean.

 

Through Jesus, God gives us even greater depths to experience God, to know love, to be human. It occurs to me that what God says in the Mosaic laws are all about how we live with God, and how we live with one another.  We are to love and honor God. We are to love and honor each other.  Jesus gives to us self-giving, sacrificial love and in so doing, Jesus gives us the command to go deeper within ourselves.

 

For me to love you as God has commanded me to do so, I must be in the right place with God, and with myself in my heart and soul.  For you to love others as God has commanded you to, you must be in a good place in heart and soul with God.  Oh, you and I can pull off superficiality for a little while, but superficiality can only take us so far.  In the end, the day-to-day challenges of human life reveals who is being real, and who is not; who is being authentic, and who can only pull of the superficiality.

 

Jesus gives us real love, the real love of God-in-humanity, the real love of God feeding people, and healing people, and being with people compassionately and in community. Jesus gives us real love, the real love of suffering love, the real love of the cross; the real love of an empty tomb, the real love of resurrection.

 

Jesus needs for us to be real in our love, too: Real in our love for God, and real in our love for each other.  That is why he gives us the commands of Matthew chapter six.  We need to pray. We need to fast, in  a healthy way. We need to give our alms, to help people in need. We need to pray.  We need to do so, though, in a real way. We need to do so in a way that is private enough, and personal enough to be real, authentic, on the inside of us, heart and soul.

 

That’s what this night, Ash Wednesday is all about.

That’s what this season, Lent, is all about.

 

Let’s be real.

Let’s be authentic.

Let’s begin again, again.

 

Let us pray.