It Is Enough

I have not been around these pages for a while.  I apologize.  I have missed you.  The only explanation I can offer is it’s summer (I absolutely love summer and am savoring every last moment of it).  Anyway, here is my sermon from yesterday ….  –PP

Sermon for Sunday, August 9
1 Kings 19:4; John 6:35, 41-51
Elijah Under The Broom Tree

 [Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life …” 1 Kings 19:4

It is enough.  Elijah has had enough.  He cannot bear another day.  He cannot take it anymore.  There is something familiar about this scene; something we recognize.  We have seen this sort of depression: in ourselves, in others.  Elijah is not simply tired or discouraged.  Elijah has reached the point where he can no longer bear the thought of another day.  He collapses under the weight of his despair, right there where he is, a day’s journey into the wilderness, there beneath a solitary broom tree.  He cries out to God for release, for death.  Elijah welcomes sleep.  He wants only for his life to be over.

Yes.  There is something familiar about this scene.  According to the World Health Organization, there are 350 million people worldwide who suffer depression.  And, contrary to what we might suspect, depression is not just an American problem, or even a western problem, depression and anxiety exist in every country of the world.   According to the available data, 5% of the world population has experienced depression within the past two years.  That’s 1 in 20, and those numbers don’t even take into account the hundreds of thousands of occurrences that go unreported because of the stigma of mental illness.   Chances are either we, or someone we love, has sat beneath that broom tree.  Elijah’s despair is painfully familiar to too many of us.

Two weeks ago, a woman collapsed into her despair and fell to her death from atop Caesars Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.  She was a bright and beautiful young woman, a wife and mother, the foster daughter of a friend of mine, and someone who had struggled with depression her whole life.  This was certainly not the first time someone within my circle of acquaintances had taken his or her own life, but this one was close.  The obituary did not report the cause of death, only that the woman’s death was unexpected.  It was heartbreaking to get that phone call and the memorial service was nearly unbearable.  So many unanswered questions.  So much pain.  Family members tried to speak, struggled to lift up and celebrate this woman’s life, and the minister did a commendable job of witnessing to God’s unconditional love in Christ; but it was hard.  Even for this pastor, it was hard.  The harsh reality of this woman’s death still presses heavily against my heart.  Did God not see fit to send angels to minister to her in her distress?

In the days since, I have found myself thinking of little else.  I have wondered what I might have said, had I been the one asked to preside at that service.  I have searched the scriptures and brought the whole of my faith to bear against what appears to have been the absence of angels beneath the broom tree that overshadowed that woman’s life.  There are no answers and I hesitate to speak with certainty about anything, but I kept coming back to one story in particular—about how the devil taunted Jesus to leap from the pinnacle of the temple for surely God would send his angels to bear him up in their wings.  True as that may be, Jesus does not jump; he does not test God.  But I’ve been thinking about those angels and their wings and that is where I have located my hope in the face of suicide—the angels do come; somehow, somewhere, in those moments between suffocating despair and death, the angels come with heavenly bread.

Anyway, that’s how I see it.  The bread that comes to us from heaven, comes as sustenance, yes; but it is primarily a sign and a promise.  For the Israelites who cried out in the wilderness, complaining against Moses and fearing they had been led into freedom only to die from hunger, God says No and rains down bread from heaven; food to eat and the assurance that God has not and will not ever abandon them.  When Elijah collapses beneath the broom tree, weary and spent, ready to surrender to death, God sends his angel to minister to him: a cake appears there on the ground before him, a sign that he was not then nor ever will be beyond the love and grace of God.  And when Jesus has compassion for the crowds and provides loaves and food for thousands, he does so as an expression of his own self-giving.  They came hungry and were fed, but the sign ultimately points to the one sent by God whose own flesh was to be bread for the life of the world.

Once the sign, the bread, has been pressed into your hand; once the promise has been sealed upon your heart; there is no way out, no way to escape the grace and mercy of God.  No peril nor hardship nor sword.  No height nor depth.  Not even death, itself.  Nothing in all of creation can separate one of us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  It’s madness, really, to believe such a thing.  That God loves us that much; that God has claimed us forever; that we are his and Jesus gave himself that we—you and I—might come to his table on this warm August morning and taste the sweetness of the promise.  I have seen the wonder of that promise realized in the faces of those who have taken the bread in eagerness and in tears.  In that moment there is nothing except Jesus, his self-giving love, and his promise:  broken and given for you and for me and forever.

Just this past week, I finally got around to seeing the movie, Selma.  I’m like that; it sometimes takes me a short forever, but I do try to keep my thumb on the pulse of popular culture.  Anyway, the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the hype, but it did raise a disturbing question:  would I have marched?  Would I have been willing to submit to beatings and scorn and possibly even death to stand up for something I believed in, for what I felt in my bones was God’s will?  I could not answer that question.  The year is not 1965; this is not Alabama.  But I also know the question is not limited by time and space and circumstance.  Would I march?  I stand before you this day forced to admit I probably would not.  Shucks, I have a hard time speaking up when someone starts making judgmental and disparaging comments about another member of the community.   I know I should say something; but I don’t.  So, no, I don’t suspect I would have joined the thousands who marched from Selma to Montgomery.

We all fall short of the Glory of God.  Each and every one of us fails miserably at giving full expression to the hope and faith we have in Christ.  We have good intentions, mind you.  But our feet hold us fast and our voices fall silent.  We are forever chasing after distractions to keep our minds occupied and away from thoughts of justice and poverty and racism and Jesus and life and death.  Even those of us who come to church on Sunday morning, often have the darnedest time lingering in the promise; claiming it for ourselves.  Five thousand people ate their fill on the grassy hillside across the lake.  Some went home.  Some followed.  All fell victim to doubt.  Who is this one who claims to be sent from God?  Bread of angels?  Bread of life?  We scan the landscape of our lives and cannot, for the life us, recognize the sign.  Oh, if only we could.  We wonder, briefly, what it would be like to rest on the wings of angels and trust God above all things.  And then our thoughts run off after some thing or another and we find ourselves frantically chasing we know not what.

As I watched that movie, I found myself profoundly moved by the moment when Dr. King and the crowd behind him, all kneel down in prayer, right there on the bridge; pausing in the presence of God; open to a sign.  I was reminded of the friends and family who gathered in silence trying to reconcile their often fragile faith with the inescapable reality of desperation and despair, daring to hope for some word of comfort.   Not unlike the crowds who stood in the very presence of our Lord and still could not recognize the sign, I thought about how we, too, hesitate to trust what is right before us, in our hands and on our lips.  The body of Christ, given for you; for me.  Bread from heaven.  Bread of angels.  Bread of Life.  Broken and pressed into our hands.  Take.  Eat.  Otherwise, the journey will be too much for you.  The promise is so outrageous, the possibility so incredible—forgiveness, mercy, sustenance, life—given for me, for you; restoring our strength; giving us life; right here, right now, lifting us up on the wings of angels.

Come to the table, beloved of God.  Touch the promise to your lips.  Dare to taste and see.  The Lord is oh, so good.  Amen.

Image: Elijah Under The Broom Tree/


Happy Fourth of July everyone!
Here is a preview of my sermon for tomorrow:

June 27

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Prophets seem to have been multiplying like rabbits lately.  They are turning up everywhere.  Television. Newspapers.  On line and on street corners.  Men and women who are so convinced of their own spiritual superiority, their own certainty of what God intends for God’s people, they loudly call for the repentance of, well, pretty much everybody.  I recently stumbled upon a YouTube video that had caught the attention of a number of independent news outlets.  It depicted a bearded man, otherwise quite ordinary, bellowing his warnings of fire and brimstone and hell in the midst of a neighborhood music festival.  I suspect, among all those who gathered for music and some afternoon fun, there had to at least been a few petty thieves and adulterers and otherwise run of the mill sinners; but this fiery preacher had zeroed in on one person in particular: a seven year old girl.  Now, the music festival just happened to fall on June 27, the day after the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality; and maybe that little girl supported equal rights or maybe she simply liked rainbows, but she was holding a rainbow flag, all pigtails and innocence, being screamed at by an angry man to repent of her sinfulness and accept Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.

Now, I’m all for repentance.  God grieves our sinful natures and longs for restored relationship, but I do not believe that bearded and otherwise ordinary man was one singled out and called by God to be a prophet among God’s people.  Of course, not all false prophets are so vulgar as to holler at children and threaten damnation.  Some are far more manipulative, with well-crafted messages and polished presentations.  Some draw large crowds of like-minded self-perceived chosen ones.  Some even have their own cable television shows.  How’s a person supposed to know?  How do we distinguish between a charlatan spewing lies and a true prophet proclaiming the truth?  Sadly, public perception of Christianity has become so distorted by the racquet, as to effectively silence the whispers of those seeking to speak of truth and mercy and love.  Churches struggle with evangelism.  No one wants any part of such a thing; no one wants to talk to strangers about Jesus; no one wants to risk being perceived as “one of them.”  So much for being sent out two by two.  We’d much rather stick close and keep our mouths shut.  We certainly don’t know enough.  We can’t possibly be sure enough.  We’re not even convinced we’re called, let alone sent.  And so, all that is true falls silent on our lips.

When I was in the third grade, I took up the violin.  I was excited about it.  I practiced faithfully.  I even spent my Saturday mornings rehearsing with a county orchestra.  My friend, Patty, played the oboe and she was in the orchestra too.  We ended up sitting together on the bus.  Every Saturday morning we rode to rehearsal and back and talked about all sorts of things, but mostly about Jesus.  Now, I went to Sunday school.  I sat with my parents and grandma in church.  And I dutifully recited the prayers my brother and I were expected to pray every evening at supper and at bedtime.  But I wasn’t at all sure about anything.  Patty, on the other hand, was really sure—maybe not about everything but certainly about Jesus.  I have this clear and precise memory of the two of us on the school bus.  Patty was sitting next to me with her notebook open on her oboe case, frantically sketching out a drawing to help me understand what she knew with certainty.  She drew two high mountains, with a huge chasm between them.  Jesus was on one side, she explained.  And I was on the other.  How was I ever going to get to the other side?  According to Patty, the answer was simple: Jesus had laid down his cross to bridge the gap between us.  It seemed like good news at the time.  It still does.

I don’t know what church Patty’s family attended.  I don’t know if Patty went to Sunday school or if she prayed grace with her siblings at meals.  But, with all the wisdom and innocence of a third grader, she knew enough; was sure enough; was convinced she was not only called, but sent—at least to me.  And I have never forgotten.  You don’t need a loud voice to proclaim the good news of God in Christ.  A whisper will do.  A whisper and the certainty that your authority to speak at all comes—not from you—but from Christ who dwells in you.  That’s how Paul explains it anyway.  Truth tellers point to Jesus; charlatans boast of themselves.  He writes to the church at Corinth with urgent concern.  The Corinthians are being led astray by the loud voices of false prophets claiming the authority of visions and revelations.  Paul, too, could boast if he wanted to, but he doesn’t.  It is not his own authority he claims.  Sure, fourteen years earlier, he had his own encounter with the Risen Christ; but, still, he claims no authority for himself.  He wants only to be judged by what he does and the words he speaks.  He knows better than to confuse his authority with that of his message.  Indeed, he is forever humbled by a thorn he bears in his flesh; an ever-present reminder of his weakness, his sinfulness, his unwavering confidence that God’s grace is sufficient.  No hardship, insult, persecution, or calamity will ever silence Paul’s voice, because Paul does not speak for himself; he speaks for Christ; for the One who dwells in him, each day renewing his strength to give voice to truth and mercy and love.

The last time I was with you, I shared about wanting to step into Mark’s narrative to urge the disciples to listen up and pay attention; to learn their lessons well, because the day was coming when Jesus would no longer be with them.  Mark’s is a fast paced gospel, and already we have the disciples being sent out to expand Jesus’ ministry of repentance and healing.  They can no longer use the excuse of not knowing enough, or that they are merely students, or even that they lack the confidence to be on their own.  Today is their graduation day, so to speak.  One last class and they will be sent out, two by two, into an often unwelcoming world.  Today’s classroom?  Nazareth.  Jesus’ home town.  And at first, everything is going splendidly as usual: the entire synagogue is mesmerized by the authority with which Jesus speaks.  But then suddenly and without warning, everything turns sour.  Someone realizes who Jesus is: a carpenter, a local boy, one of their own—one of the common folk, like the rest of them.  Who does he think he is?  The entire town takes offense and refuses to believe.  For two thousand years since, people have been taking offense.  Unable to distinguish between true and false prophets, they opt to not believe.  Learn your lesson well, disciples.  Watch what the Teacher does.  Listen closely as he instructs you to do the same.

Go.  Where you are welcomed, stay.  Where you are not, where people refuse to hear and believe, simply leave.  Shake the dust from your sandals and move on.  You don’t have to raise your voice or stomp your feet or make a spectacle or threaten anybody.  A whisper will do.  The authority and power you have is not yours, it is that of Christ who dwells in you.  It is yours by virtue of your baptism.  And Jesus can as easily work through you and me as he can through a reluctant band of students who would much rather stay in school than graduate.  Just for today, turn down the volume on all the voices clamoring for your attention and listen for the whispers.  There, there you will find the grace and truth of Christ:  In the scribblings of a young oboe player on a school bus, in the quiet witness of a child being bullied by a street preacher, in the hardships and humility of prophets and disciples who have, despite indifference and offense, entrusted God’s words of truth and mercy and love to generation after generation and finally into your hands on this summer Sunday morning in July.  Like so many who have gone before us, we will soon gather at our Lord’s table of grace and then be sent out, dismissed into a world that so often seems to want only to coerce us into silence.

We have all we need to stay strong.  God’s grace is sufficient.  God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.  God’s truth continues to find its voice on your lips and on mine, in the hesitant whispers finding courage and strength in the power of Christ that dwells in us.  This gospel, this message of God’s truth and mercy and love that has been entrusted to us cannot be silenced.  No matter if the entire world takes offense, we will continue to dust ourselves off and carry on.  It is who we are.  It is the ministry to which we are called.  Christ keeps leading, keeps going before us and we, well, we who have been baptized into His Body, ready or not, we are carried along and forward into His future.  Amen.

Image: YouTube screen capture/Danthropology/2015/07

Who Cares?

This was difficult to write. I had mixed feelings about preaching it.  But I could not remain silent.  What follows is my sermon from this morning. –PP

Mark 4:35-41
June 21, 2015

Racism.  That is the word that is on everybody’s mind.  There is no point in dancing around it.  The massacre in Charleston has left the entire country reeling.  Nine people dead.  Brutally murdered in a house of worship.  The perpetrator has admitted he sat among the victims, accepted their hospitality, almost didn’t go through with it because they were so nice to him.  But it had to be done, he said. Some insist he was mad.  Others maintain he was driven, not by madness—but by his intense hatred of black people.  Most of us are left questioning where Jesus was on that dark night in Charleston.  Did he not care that nine among the faithful were about to perish?  Could Jesus not have shook off sleep long enough to quiet the storms of madness and hate and rescue nine of his own?

At least those are the questions we feel we are left with.  Had I sat down to prepare this sermon prior to Wednesday night, I would have probably written about Jesus being in the boat with his disciples—asleep, but very much present.  I inevitably would have gone on to mention how the “nave”—this area in our churches where the congregation sits—is derived from the same word as “navy”—and actually means “boat.” I might have expanded upon Jesus’ call to his disciples and to us to cross over to the other side—to bring the good news of God’s kingdom to foreign shores and among strangers who are nothing like us but whom Jesus loves nonetheless.  And I certainly would have assured us all that we, like the disciples in Mark’s story, need not be afraid.  Jesus is right here with us—in the boat.  But none of that felt true to the whole of God’s story as it has been unfolding across this country in recent days.

It occurred to me, more than a few of Jesus’ disciples were experienced fishermen, so being out on the sea—even in a storm—should not have necessarily caused undue panic among them.  No, there had to be something about the wind and sea that night that scared the begeebees out of them; a foreboding that so frightened them, they desperately shook Jesus awake.  “Do you not care?” they shout over roar of wind and waves.  “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  I’ve never been quite sure whether the disciples were expecting a miracle or just wanted Jesus to lend a hand bailing the water out of the boat.  But one thing’s for sure, what happened next caught them by surprise.  Jesus rebukes the wind, calms the sea, then turns to his stunned disciples and asks, “Why are you afraid?”  “Have you still no faith?”  Ouch.  Hey, wait a minute.  What just happened?  Who IS this guy?

Throughout the whole of Mark’s gospel, the disciples wrestle with that question.  Indeed, who is Jesus?  Who is this one that even the wind and sea obey?  When they finally reach the other side of the sea, Jesus and the disciples are greeted by a demon-possessed man called Legion—because he is many.  Anyway, Legion has no questions; the demons know precisely who Jesus is.  No sooner have the disciples pulled their boat up on the shore, that this crazed man throws himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet, shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  Jesus responds by calling the unclean spirit out of the man with the same authority as his voice had when he calmed the tumultuous sea   You and I, we who know the rest of the story, we want, at every juncture, to step into Mark’s narrative and encourage the disciples  to pay attention and listen up, to learn their lessons well.  If they think they were afraid in the boat, things are only going to get worse.  The day will come when Jesus will die, when they will really feel abandoned.

That’s what it feels like, doesn’t it?  Storms rage in Ferguson.  In Baltimore.  Now in Charleston.  We are left feeling frightened and helpless.  Where is Jesus?  Does he not see that people are perishing?  Ah, if God were to raise up a prophet among us to answer our questions and assure us we have not been forgotten.  Yet, even despite the storms that rage, we still gather, still cling to our Lord’s promise that he is indeed present:  In the bread.  The wine.  In the community of the baptized.  So, why then are we still so afraid?  Is our faith somehow lacking?  Have we lost sight of hope?  So many questions.  Do I believe Jesus was present in that Bible study?  Yes.  I am as sure of that as I am of anything.  Jesus was with those men and women just as he has been present with every man and woman who has died in the faith, beginning with the first Christian martyrs down through the ages, and yes, in Charleston as well as our own communities.

There is a demon raging on our shores.  In our cities and towns.  Even in our churches.  Its name is Legion, for he is many:  racism, hatred, greed, privilege, indifference.  Demons that can be and are exorcised little by little and every time a member of the Christ’s Body speaks with the power of his or her baptism.  No.  Your uncle may not tell his racist jokes in your home.  No.  The disparity of resources provided to our urban and suburban schools is not acceptable.  No.  Under no circumstances can discrimination be justified.  Black lives matter.  Every life matters.  We are all in this together.  Certainly no one can hope to eradicate racism on his or her own.  But, I believe one person can make a difference, that those differences can add up.  A friend of mine recently bought one of those dew rag bandana things.  It was red, white and blue, and seemed, to him, a fun accessory for the upcoming Fourth of July festivities.  As news of the Charleston tragedy spread, he called me, horrified—certainly by the murders, but there was something else:  that dew rag of his?  Dear God—it could be construed as representing the bold stripes of a Confederate flag…

You and I, all of us, are members together of the Body of Christ.  Our Lord dwells  in us and with us.  Ours are the only hands and feet he has on this earth.  Ours are the only voices he can raise to cast out the demons of racism and indifference.  Jesus once walked among us.  He taught his disciples and us everything we need to know about love and mercy and justice.  He has not left us orphaned.  The Spirit leads and inspires us; still raises up prophets among us to call us back to Jesus’ truth.  This past Wednesday, nine of God’s prophets died in Charleston.  Nine brothers and sisters numbered among the Body of Christ:  Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, DePayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda, and Myra.   In their dying, they have, I pray, at last shaken us from our slumber; their memory pleads with us to listen up, to take notice of the evil around us, to pay attention to the Spirit’s leading and not stay silent.  I don’t have any answers, and I have absolutely no idea what a world devoid of racism might like.  But I know it begins with me.  It begins with you.  One dew rag.  One person.  One voice at a time.