A SERMON ABOUT SPIRITUAL VISION AN INCLUSIVITY

DO YOU SEE THIS WOMAN?

LUKE 7: 36-8:3        JUNE 12, 2016

SHALLOW HAL

How attractive are you?  That might depend on who is looking at you and what kind of vision they have.  A middle-aged woman was looking into a full length mirror and said to her husband, “Look at me. Just look at me. My hair is turning gray, my skin has brown spots. I’m sagging and wrinkled. Please say something positive about me. And the husband said, “Well, there is nothing wrong with your eyesight.”

I think there is something wrong with the eyesight of many people that has nothing to do with optometry. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. And real beauty is in the SPIRITUAL eye of the beholder. Have you ever seen a really attractive woman with an ugly man? I have a picture here of one such couple. You have to ask “what did she ever see in him?” Oh wait; this is a picture of Prudy and me. Never mind.

There was a movie a few years ago called “Shallow Hal.” Jack Black plays a very shallow man who only sees the physical attributes of a woman in determining her worth. Then he falls under a spell where he sees women for their inner-beauty. He falls in love with a woman who is very overweight. But when Hall looks at her, he sees Gwyneth Paltrow.  We learn that there is more than one kind of vision.

This story in Luke is about the ability to see. The commentators called it a story of two sinners. Simon the Pharisee would not have approved of that title. He had vision problems. He saw himself as extremely righteous.  Never mind the fact that he had invited Jesus for dinner and then failed to offer him the required hospitality. He didn’t see that. And he saw this woman who came uninvited into the open house and knelt at the feet of Jesus. But he didn’t really see her? He saw a SINNER.  Luke doesn’t tell us the nature of her sin. But it was very public and made her ritually unclean to the judgmental Pharisees. Maybe she was a   Whatever her sin, Simon doesn’t really see the woman.  In fact that is what Jesus says to Simon.  “Do you SEE this woman?” This is a rhetorical question. The answer is clearly NO. And it has nothing to do with his eyes.

CATEGORIES

The problem with Simon is that he saw people in terms of categories. People were either sinners or righteous; right or wrong. He truly could not see this woman who is so extravagantly honoring Jesus with the kind of hospitality that Simon had failed to offer.

Simon is not alone in his poor spiritual vision. Many people see others in terms of the category to which they are assigned. Some see people as just black or Hispanic or Muslim or gay and draw conclusions about the person based on that category. And when that happens, you don’t really see the person Every human being is an individual first rather than a member of an identity group. The moment we forget that is the moment we enter a phase of moral descent. Dr. King dreamed of a time when a man would be judged not by the color of his skin, but the content of his character.

Jesus saw people as they really were. He knew that every person is mixture of saint and sinner. He didn’t deal with people in terms of categories. Look at the people he chose to be his disciples. They were fisher men and tax collectors and radical zealots and Luke lets us know that a number of his important followers were women; unheard of at that time.

Jesus even refuses to categorize Simon. To Jesus, he was more than just a Pharisee. Of course he would eat with him. Though Simon probably saw Jesus as belonging in the category of trouble makers and outsiders, Jesus would not pass up an opportunity to break bread with him and try to teach him about spiritual vision.

GRACE VISION

Jesus tells Simon a Two men owe the creditor money. One owes a small about. The other owes a huge amount. The creditor forgives the debts of both. Jesus traps Simon by asking which one would be more grateful. Simon condemns his lack of spiritual eyes by giving the right answer. The one who is forgiven much loves much.  It’s a fantastic story.  Creditors almost NEVER forgave any amount of debt; especially if it was a huge amount of money. That’s something that has not changed.  What if the bank came and said, “Hey, you know that big mortgage on your house? Don’t worry about it. The debt is cancelled.” Yeah right!

So a big part of this parable is the forgiveness of the debt. In this case it is the debt of sin. And it is an amazing gift that the debt is wiped out. The woman if forgiven and she can’t do enough to express her love and gratitude to Jesus. Simon doesn’t even realize that he too owes a debt. And so he shows no love. Grace is the beginning of Godly love. We are forgiven a debt we could never pay. And as a result we are called to love God and all of God’s people regardless of category. And to love extravagantly!

Brennan Manning was a Catholic priest who fell into alcoholism, was defrocked and became homeless and constantly drunk. He tells the story of waking up on a Sunday morning in the gutter outside a church. Many people came by. But it felt to him like nobody saw him. One man called the police and asked that Manning be removed because he was disturbing the parishioners.  Far too many church people suffer from spiritual They saw him as a member of a category; DRUNKS. Did anyone see a desperate man in need of help? Or did they just see a drunk. Simon saw only a woman with a bad reputation. But Jesus asked him, “Do you SEE this woman?”

RADICAL INCLUSIVITY = CHURCH

Where do you see yourself in this story? I can’t see myself as the woman with a shady past. I also can’t quite see myself as Simon.  I think maybe I am one of the other guests at the table. I’m trying to learn the lesson that Jesus is teaching. I’m trying to understand the magnitude of grace. I’m trying to improve my spiritual vision so that I can see, really see each person as one who is forgiven by God.  I want to consistently see beyond categories.

I want to understand how no act of love is too great in the face of the debt that Jesus has paid for me. I read that in Calcutta there is a tradition of hospitality that causes the host to bow before his guest and touch his forehead to the feet of the one who is welcomed.  The response of love that is asked of us is unique to each individual. And if you are looking with spiritual eyes you will find those opportunities. It is always a response to grace.  I relate to a line from the hymn by Robert Robinson, “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing.” He begins the last verse by saying, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.”

But there is another part of this story. Jesus tells this woman that her sins are forgiven and bids her go in peace. Go where in peace? The only people she had known and the only money she ever had were a part of her old life. What she needed, what we all need is a place to go where there is radical Inclusivity for ALL sinners.

That is what the church is called to be. It’s not a club for the righteous. It is a haven for sinners of all descriptions who have found grace from God and from the other members. One person said the church is like a starving person telling other starving people where they can find food. In order to do that we have to open our SPIRITUAL eyes and see each person as a child of God, whether that person is a Prostitute or a Pope or someone in between. Luke started his gospel with an announcement by angels to shepherds explaining the purpose of the birth in Bethlehem. I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be ALL people. ALL people? ALL?

A FEW THOUGHTS ON WRITING

I have written two books. The first is called Whadda Ya’ Know, Preacher.? It’s a collection of essays based on my experiences in ministry.

The second book is entitled And See All the People. It’s a work of fiction about the members of a church and the pastor. Even though it is fiction, it is a result of 40 years of parish ministry.

Both books are available in print or Kindle form from Amazon Books.

I am not sure why I write. I guess I feel like I still have something to share. I know that these books are not for any mass audience. John Grisham  writes a book and it sells in the tens of thousands. I write one and it sells in the tens. My cousin is also a minister. We go to continuing education events together. He asked if I was going to pay for our accommodations with my royalties. I said yes as long as we are staying in the homeless men’s shelter.

I have thought about trying to find an agent to help me publish so that more people might read them. But I don’t really think my books are the kind that would make money for a publisher. I have written some short stories and I am working on a novel. Maybe those would be worth having an agent take a look. Who knows?

I have this experience and things that I have learned. My problem is, I don’t know that very many people are reading about it. I guess it is just a hobby for me without being very helpful for anyone else.

I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I enjoy the process whether anybody reads it or not. If you read one or the other or both books, could  you let me know what you think? It would be helpful to get some feedback.

In the meantime, i will continue to post sermons I have preached on this blog. Next Wednesday, I will post another sample of And See All the People.

A SERMON ABOUT REDEMPTION

SWEENEY EXECUTION SET FOR FRIDAY AT NOON.

LUKE 23: 44-24: 2 MAUNDY THURSDAY, APRIL 18, 2019

 

Imagine with me. No, tonight I ask you to do more than just imagine. I ask you to BE there with me and feel what it must feel like.

You are in a small cell. Just down the hall is the execution chamber.  You are totally alone. There is a clock on the wall opposite your cell. As hard as you try to can’t help but look at it. Those are the final minutes of your life ticking away.

It has been a very busy morning.  You tried to sleep, but it was fitful and you woke regularly in a terror that this was all real and not a dream.  Your court appointed lawyer came to tell you that the Supreme Court had refused to hear the case. The Governor had refused the plea for clemency.  He tells you that he has made arrangements for your burial. Though he was probably not the sharpest lawyer, Mr. Joseph had tried hard and you thank him as you say goodbye.

Most of the guards have been business like and free of any outward emotion. It’s just a job for them. There are a few who seemed to smirk at you. As the barber shaved your head the guard with him looked delighted to have a part in your nightmare.

Now you wait.  You reflect on the crime that put you here. You were guilty as charged. There is no sense denying it now. Your hands shake. The sweat is rolling down your face. You can’t sit still.  At this point you just wish it was over.

You hear the footsteps in the hallway. The warden is accompanied by two of the guards who seem happy to have volunteered for this job. They handcuff you and manacle your feet. Then they lead you on the short walk to the door that will be the last one you ever walk through.  The room is brightly lit. And there it is. The chair; so prominent in the other- wise empty room. The guards push you into the chair and remove the shackles. They begin to tighten the leather straps on your arms, legs, lap and chest.

A curtain is drawn revealing a room full of people who will witness the execution. Most of them are happy to see you die. You can see the hatred in their eyes.  Humiliation is added to the dread of the pain that will soon take your life. The warden is speaking.  You can’t make out what he is saying because your heart is beating so strongly and loudly in terror. You are breathing deeply and quickly. You assume he is asking if you have any last words. But your mouth is so dry you can’t free your tongue to speak.  You say nothing. The guards place a wet sponge on your head. They attached the electrode to your ankle and the skull cap to your head. You see the warden look at the clock. This is it. Your life will end in judgment for your crime.

Then, just before they place the hood over your face, a man walks through the same door that you just came through moments ago. He is tall and strong looking. You have no idea how he got in here. He is talking with the warden. Then they are joined in the conversation by the Governor and the Chief Justice. What are they talking about? You are afraid to even hope that some miracle has occurred. The wait is added torture. Why don’t they just get this over with?

But then the guards are called over. They return to the chair and remove the electrodes and undo the straps. They help you stand because you are weak in the knees. No one says a word until one of the guards tells you to stand over there and watch. They push the tall man into the chair and fasten him down. They back away and at a signal from the warden the switch is thrown. His body strains against the straps and shudders. It is only a minute, but it feels like an hour. When the current is stopped, he slumps in the chair. But they throw the switch again and he bolts upward; obviously not dead yet. You can smell the burning of flesh. When they stop the second time, the doctor examines him and declares, “This innocent man is dead.”

The guards take you out of the room and down a different hallway. They put you in a cell alone. They seem disappointed that they didn’t get to see you fry. Now alone you begin to weep. Was it relief or confusion or guilt? Or was it all of these? You try to sleep, but sleep escapes you.

You wake Saturday morning. They bring you breakfast. You have no appetite.   You feel nauseous. You can’t stop thinking about that man who took your place. You can’t get the smell out of your nostrils.  You stare straight ahead. Time stands still. You are alone and filled with almost as much fear as you had yesterday. Sometime in the afternoon you fall asleep exhausted. The nightmares haunt your sleep but you do not awaken.

You wake up before dawn. It is still pitch black in your cell. There are no windows and the lights have not been turned on. You see the tray of dinner that they must have brought last night untouched. It takes a moment to reconnect with reality. Why are you still alive? Why is he dead?

But then you see a very bright light in the hallway. It does not seem to be coming from the florescent light fixtures. It is clean white light. You hear footsteps; this time just one set. Then he is standing in front of you. He is alive. You are sure it must be a dream. You saw him die. He had the burn marks still on his head and on his ankle. But he was alive and well. You stammer, “How?  Why?” But he just smiles and then you hear the cell keys turning and the prison door opens.

 

A PERSONAL SERMON TO ME

I am not one to have visions or hear voices. I envy those who are contacted by God in sensory ways. That would leave little doubt about the message or the one who sent that message.

Instead I have to depend on the still small voice that is described in Elijah. That is better translated as the sound of silence. That experience is one that I am familiar with. It takes more discernment and faith. I hear God’s voice in Scripture and in a baby’s laugh and in a sunset and in the love of others. But once in a while it comes unexpectedly in a truth that gets whispered to me in the sound of silence.

I was sitting in church. The preacher was sincere if a little too long. The choir did a nice job. I knew and loved all of the hymns. Communion was offered and received. But the message that God had for me that day was not in any of those forms.

I had been spending a lot of time and energy worrying about our nation. I was alarmed by the lack of integrity and the devotion to party above country. I was fretting about the  rule of law that seemed to be losing ground.  For some reason, I fixated on a word in the bulletin at that church service. The word was peace.  I thought to myself, “I’m not feeling much peace these days.” Then the message came to me. It was in words that were inaudible but real just the same. This was the message: “Why are you worrying so much?  It may not be on your time-table but trust me, I’ve go this.” God

All of a sudden the word peace made sense again. I was foolish to put my trust in politicians to solve the conflict that we seem to live in these days. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3: 5,6)

Lord, sometimes I wish you would speak up a little and speak to some of the people who are making a mess of a country I love. But I got the message. Thanks.

MY TAKE ON THE OSCAR NOMINATED MOVIES

I love movies. It is such a treat to be able to go to a theater and be transported to a different world for two hours. My personal preference is for movies that tell a good human story of transition or redemption or courage. I am not  fan of fantasy or comic book movies unless they contain a meaningful story about people.

This years crop of pictures nominated for best picture was not as strong as some years. But here is my take on the seven of the nine that I saw. I have given each one a grade. That is obviously a very subjective assessment. Others will disagree with my take. That’s fine. I hope you will let me know your take. This is the order in which I saw these films.

1917

This movie is set during the First World War. But it is not essentially about the war. It gives us a sense of the ugliness and absurdity of war and it’s inhumanity, But it is really the story of two men who show courage and loyalty and perseverance in terrible conditions. I came to care about these men. The acting was very good. The film was shot in such a way that you felt the starkness of the trenches and battlefields. It could have been best picture. A-

LITTLE WOMEN

This was a beautifully made movie. The screen writer did an excellent job of making this old story seem fresh and relevant to today. The character of Jo symbolized the struggle for women to be taken seriously in their own right. Overcoming obstacles is still a part of any women’s life who wants to achieve something other than being married. It was not a big film. But it was worth seeing. B-

FORD VERSES FERRARI

I went to see this picture with low expectations. I am not into race cars. I thought this might be about that. It was not. The race track was just the  setting to tell the story of friendship and perseverance and courage. It had a way of building suspense in the race scenes. But the strength of the movie was the character portrayals. The acting was very good. The characters were believable and not over-played. I did not know until the end that this was a true story. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Even though it was not given much of a chance, I could have accepted this one as best picture. A

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

This got a lot of publicity. I thought it was a stinker. It was the worst of the seven I saw. I think Tarantino is an overrated movie maker. He should have hired an editor. It was two and a half hours long. There were scenes of Brad Pitt driving that lasted for more than tree minutes and added nothing to the story. Brad won a best Supporting Actor Award. I don’t see it. I thought the acting in general was stiff and artificial. DiCaprio was even worse.  The story dragged. It wreaked of Hollywood self-importance. The only redeeming factor was the creative twist in the Manson murders story.  Best picture? This turd burger? No way. D

JOKER

What an intense film. It was not fun to watch, Some movies are worth seeing even when they are difficult to watch. The value of the film rests on the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as the demented title character. His descent into madness while the world’s cruelty and indifference pushes him farther and farther into psychosis is a sad reflection on reality. Phoenix is kind of a goofball. But there was no denying that this was the best performance of the year. The setting in comic book land was not a plus. This was and is a real story for too many broken people in our world. This is a film worth seeing. A-

PARASITE

The win for best picture was a shock. I thought it was a good movie. I don’t mind the sub-titles though it does distract from the visuals of the film. It’s a story about class struggle. A poor family has the resolve and cleverness to survive. They latch on to a rich family who is portrayed as being clueless.  It is definitely a tragic story that is all too real, whether in South Korea or in the U.S. I happen to think it was a little overrated. But still a good film. B

JO JO RABBIT

In some ways we saved the best for last. The boldness of presenting comedy in the midst of the terrible last days of the Second Word War in Germany was impressive. The 10 year old boy wants to fit in, So he strives to be a little Nazi.  This same thing can be seen in the lives of those who join white nationalist groups or Neo Nazi groups. They want to fit in somewhere. The boy in the movie has Adolf Hitler as his imaginary friend. The director plays the part of Hitler with enough clownishness to let us know that this is not a tribute. It turns out that it is not really a comedy at all. It shows us the redemptive change in the boy. His bias is overcome with a human relationship with a Jewish girl.  The acting was first rate. The story was well told. There are sad moments. You could laugh and cry and think all at the same movie. This would have been my pick for best picture. A

There were two other films that I saw this past year that did not get nominated. One was Yesterday. What a creative story. The other was Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It was a quiet human interest story about the redemption of one man and the amazing quality of grace in Fred Rodgers. Either of these pictures could have been considered as best of the year.

Let me know what your favorites were.

A few thoughts on celebrity

Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash. That is sad. I grieve for his family losing him and his daughter. But I wonder if we have become too obsessed with celebrities in our culture. The news had his death as the lead story for days. It might even seem like the deaths of the other people on board do not matter. Can you name one of them?

And at about the same time, a plane was shot down by the Taliban killing two soldiers who gave their lives serving their country. Do you know their names? Has any sympathy gone out to their families?

Does it ever seem to you that someone somewhere switched the price tags on what should be most important. If you are a star athlete or a movie actor,  your life matters. And if you are a soldier or a teacher or a student, your life matters. Is is possible that we pay too much attention to celebrities? Do we really need minute to minute coverage of the Royal family?  Should we be obsessed with who is divorcing whom in Hollywood? Does this disproportionate  attention to those who are famous skew our sense of the value of all human life?

And while I am on a mini-rant about celebrities, I want to comment on Jane Fonda. She is flying around the country getting arrested at rallies about global warming. I am deeply concerned about the way we seem to be hell-bent on destroying our planet. So he cause is just.

But I have a long memory. During the Vietnam war, Jane went to Hanoi and met with the enemy. She posed at a gun that was used to shoot down American planes. She visited prisoners of war who were paraded before her as if they were being treated well. She even turned a note from one of the soldiers over to their captors no doubt causing them great pain.

Again, it is not the cause that concerns me. Many of us had great misgivings about that war. But I believe that what she did was treason. She should have been arrested for real then. Now she uses jet fuel to fly around getting her picture in the paper saying that she is concerned about the use of fossil fuels.

Celebrities do have a change to do good.  Troy Polamalu played football for the Steelers for 12 years. He visited Children’s Hospital and played with the kids every Friday. There were no cameras present. Jimmy Carter works building houses for Habitat for Humanity and stays with it long after the camera men have gone home.  That is the way celebrities can make the world a better place.

I don’ grieve the death of Kobe Bryant any less than I grieve the death of the other passengers or the two soldiers killed. I don’t grieve for him anymore than the others either.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR

Thanks for the comments. Please keep them coming.  Here is a sermon from last year. Friday, I will have some comments on celebrities.

 

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

LUKE 10: 25-37 JULY 14, 2019

WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT IS THIS STORY ALL ABOUT

Sometimes people state what is painfully obvious; like these Something went wrong in jet crash, experts say. Miners refuse to work after death. War dims hope for peace. If strike isn’t settled quickly, it may last a while. Cold wave linked to temperatures.

And sometimes headlines don’t really mean what they say and are misunderstood; like these. Eye drops off shelf. Red tape holds up new bridge. Hospitals sued by 7 foot doctors. Prostitutes appeal to Pope.

The story of the Good Samaritan could be painfully obvious. We have heard it so many times before. We can assume that we know what the moral of the story is all about. Bu it may also not mean just what it seems to say.

It is always interesting to think about which character we are in the story. An expert on the Bible asks Jesus a question, not to learn but to try to discredit him. Jesus answers him with a story. You know the story. So ask yourself who are you in the story. Are you one of the two religious people who pass by without stopping to help?  Before you condemn them we should remember that they were busy. Many of us are on tight schedules. We know what it’s like to have to be at the Temple by 11:00. We understand their natural self-preoccupation. They were afraid that they would be made ritually unclean if they came near. And they would have put themselves in danger because the same robbers might still be around. Or maybe you are the Samaritan who stopped to help. We all would like to think that we would be kind and help this poor man who was truly helpless.

I’d like to tell you about a time when I thought I was being the Samaritan. It was during a youth group event. We were having a scavenger hunt. We broke up into teams in cars of adult helpers. The first one back to the church would win. My team was doing well. Then we came around the corner and an older lady flagged us down. Her husband was having a heart attack. We stopped and I told one of the boys to go to the house near-by and call 911. This was before cell phones. We waited there with her until the medics arrived. When we got back to church we were the last to finish. The other kids were mocking the slow preacher’s car. That night I changed the lesson to this story of the Good Samaritan. But it is not a parallel to this parable. It was just a game. It cost me nothing to stop.  It posed no danger to me.  It was not the kind of thing Jesus was getting at in the story.

KINDNESS AS IF

Maybe the headline here would be, “Jesus tells a story about being kind.”  There is some that in the story. It may contain a moral teaching about being kind to others. I am coming to the conclusion more and more that kindness is the missing element in the world that causes so much Whether it is in the interaction of nations or the way governments treat people in their own nation or the way neighbors treat their neighbors. Think of how much good would be achieved if kindness ruled all of our behavior.

But this story is about a special form of kindness. It is an extravagant form of kindness. We may all be willing to show costly or even dangerous kindness for the people that we love. But what about the stranger? We don’t have any children at the border. Why should we be concerned about conditions there?  They are not even American citizens. Why should we help them? It’s because when Jesus said to help whoever needs help, he didn’t limit it to citizenship or race. In fact that was his answer to the Bible expert’s question.  There are NO LIMITS to the call to care and to help, even if it is costly or dangerous. Jesus destroys any parochial understanding of our mission.

Fred Rogers was one of the best examples of teaching kindness to children. His message got through to many of us as adults as well. One child said, “Mr. Rogers talks to us like we are Another said, “Mr. Rogers is kind to me even though he doesn’t know me.” And still another child said, “He talks to us like we matter.”  He asked us all to be his neighbor.  The law expert got his answer to his question, “Who is my neighbor?” It is anyone who shows kindness to me. Kindness is love in action. Kindness is love with its work gloves on. Love is not an emotion. It is an action.

But what about our neighbors that we don’t love? Maybe like the Samaritan in the story? Kurt Vonnegut had a character asked that question of an older friend in one of his novels.  “What should I do about the likes of him? He don’t deserve my help?” And the old man said, “For God’s sake, Joe, be kind!” Even the secular world catches on sometimes. I think Mr. Rogers would say, “Behave as if you DO love them and you will make them your neighbor.

The Samaritan would have been one of those people that the lawyer and the crowd of Jews listening to Jesus would have They were descended from Jews who had not gone off in exile. They intermarried with other races in the area. They rejected the Temple in Jerusalem and built their own Temple on Mr. Gerizim. They were rejected and despised by Jews in the days of Jesus. And Jesus shocks them all by making a Samaritan the hero of the story.

Do you know any Samaritans? So who would a modern parallel to the despised and rejected? Who would Jesus make the hero of the story that would shock us and be a scandal to us? Clarence Jordon wrote a version of Luke set in the Jim Crow south. It’s called the Cotton Patch Version. In his version the Samaritan who stops to help is black. Amy Levine said that after 911, Jesus might have made the hero a Muslim or even Al Qaeda.

Will Willimon wrote about a time his car broke down at night in South Carolina. Several cars went by without stopping to help. Then a car stopped and two big old southern boys got out. Neither was wearing a shirt. They were both were heavily tattooed. They flew a Confederate flag from the antennae. They were both drinking beer. They said, “You all having trouble?” And Willimon thought, “I’m having trouble But they got under the hood of his car and had it started in about 15 minutes. Then they rode off; maybe back to Samaria Georgia.

I remember a great example of shattering categories of who is my neighbor from the news. It was during the protests in There was a skin head lying on the sidewalk bleeding badly. Over him was a nurse who was dressing his wound and giving him water and calling 911 on her cell phone; She happened to be black. Who is my neighbor?

EXTRAVAGANT LOVE OF GOD AND NEIGHBOR

If this parable was primarily about being kind to others, we should remember that it calls for extravagant and costly love. It calls for kindness to those who would probably not have done the same for us. The lawyer asks how he can save himself. And sometimes we try to do that by doing some unselfish Maybe we give a little to the poor. Or we volunteer a little time for a good cause.  But that is not the kind of love that Jesus is talking about in his parable.

We thought about which character we would be in the story. But we didn’t mention one of the characters; the VICTIM. The victim is anyone in need who can’t help themselves. Has that ever been you? I am guessing that every one of us has been there at one time or another. Maybe you have even been like Blanche Dubois in Street Car Named Desire who had to depend on the kindness of strangers at some point.

But in another sense we ALL need the help of one who was despised and rejected. You see, I think the central point of the story is to identify JESUS as the SAMARITAN. The lawyer wants to know how to save himself. And in his answer Jesus says, “You can’t save yourself” Salvation is a free gift from the one who was set upon and beaten and left for dead on a cross. This, like most of the New Testament is a story about grace.  Willimon says this about Jesus. “Remember that this whole argument with the lawyer is preceded by the observation that, ‘This one receives sinner and eats with them. This one welcomes back prodigals. This one forgives adulterous women. This one admits thieves into heaven. This one says, Father forgive them. This one’s love is so extravagant and costly that it makes our charity look miserly.’”

This one, despised and rejected is the one who saves us from the ditch where we have been left for dead. So, for God’s sake, Christian, be kind.

 

SAMPLE CHAPTER FROM MY BOOK

My book, And See All the People, is a fictional account of a church with a fictional pastor named Tim. Each chapter is about one of the members of this church. It takes a look at the interactions of church members and pastor. It is pure fiction; I am not Pastor Tim. None of the members are real people from any church that I served. But any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely intentional. Below is a sample chapters from the book, It is available on Amazon Books in print or Kindle form.

BEATRICE

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Pastor Tim often thought of that Beatles song when he looked at Beatrice.  She was not what most would call an attractive person. Her clothes and her hair and her figure were frumpy and matronly.  She wore far too much make-up. And her eyes expressed a feeling somewhere between hopeful and desperate.

Beatrice had never been married. Her father left when she was very young. Her mother was bitter; but not just towards him. It seemed that it was men in general she was disappointed in. She sent clear messages to Beatrice that men were selfish and not to be trusted.

But she grew up believing that somewhere out there she would find a man who would be different. She didn’t really think of him as Prince Charming.  He would be a plain and simple man who would love her and be true to her for life.

There was a boy in high school that paid attention to her. He seemed nice. He had a serious problem with acne and he was a little shy. But Beatrice was shy as well. And she was aware that she was no beauty herself.  She was thrilled when he asked her to go to the Senior Prom with him. She said yes with great enthusiasm. On the way home from school she day dreamed about the dress she would wear and how he would bring her flowers and how they would dance every dance.

But her dreams were dashed by reality, which took the form of her mother.  “You can’t go to the prom. Have not learned anything from my mistakes? This boy will only want one thing from you and after he has you he will never call you again.  You are absolutely forbidden to go.  Beatrice cried most of the night. The next day she told the boy that she could not go to the prom with him.

Beatrice got past her heartbreak and began to concentrate on the future. She was sure that when she got older and was on her own, there would be plenty of chances to go out dancing with young men who were nothing like the ones her mother hated. But it would be a very long time before she was ever really on her own.  She had a job but she continued to live at home. She slept in the same room that had been hers since childhood.  There were men at work. But they all seemed so brutish and crude. She was sure her Mr. Right was not among them.

About the only other place she ever went was to church.  She sat with her mother and scanned the congregation for eligible men. But they were few and far between. Most of them were boys or older men or married men. Once there was a young man about her age who started attending. He was handsome and slim and neatly dressed. She broke away from mother at coffee hour just long enough to speak to him. Shy as she was, she walked right up to him and introduced herself. She welcomed him to church as she noticed the absence of a wedding ring.  He spoke to her in a soft voice that seemed very caring and sensitive. He told her he lived in New York City and was visiting his parents.

Beatrice began to put specifics to her dream even before the conversation ended.  It would be so exciting to live in New York. His friends would become her friends. They would go out dancing on weekends. They would have children. She loved children.  Maybe they would get a small house in the suburbs when the children came.  “Beatrice, it’s time to go home.”  She was startled out of her fantasy by her mother’s irritated voice.

Before she left, she asked the young man if she could write to him.  He said of course and gave her a card with his address on it. She held it like a valuable treasure.  AS soon as she got home she wrote a letter telling him all about hers self.  She was a little disappointed that it sounded so dull but this was honestly her life. She mailed it the next day on the way to work.

He wrote back that same week.  She clutched the letter like it was a ticket to a better, happier life. In the letter he told her what he did for work. He told him he lived in a small apartment in Greenwich Village which he with another guy who was a little older.  They were planning a trip to Mexico together in March. He said there was a resort there that catered to men like us.

What did that mean? She decided to seek the counsel of the new pastor at her church. She didn’t know him, but she sensed that he was kind and might be easy to talk to. She showed him the letter and asked what he thought that meant; men like us.  Pastor Time knew the young man and his family. He explained that her desired future husband was gay. As naïve as she was, she knew what that meant. Pastor Tim said there was no reason they could not correspond as friends. “He doesn’t have many friends in this town. I’m sure he would be glad to be friends with you.”

Beatrice tried to stay under control as she got up to leave the office. But her lower lip gave her away her once again broken heart. She was devastated. Why was it that every time she got her hopes up about a guy, they were crushed immediately?   She waited until she got home to break down.  Her mother heard her sobbing in her room.  “What’s this all about?”  Beatrice told her mother about the letter and her bitter disappointment. But she got no sympathy. She only got an “I told you so.”  “You are better off staying away from men altogether.  It will save you a lot of pain.” Beatrice took no comfort in that.  She was not ready to give up.

When her mother died a year later, Pastor Tim was wonderful. He came to the house and prayed with her. Then he helped her with funeral arrangements and the details that go with a loss. He visited regularly at first.  She felt a strange mix of emotions. She had loved her mother and the house felt very empty without her. But she also struggled with some feelings of relief. She was free to do whatever she wanted. If a nice gentleman would call her for a date, she would accept with no one to answer to. But the call never came.

Pastor Tim tried to start a singles group at the church.  There were a fair number of people who attended including Beatrice; at least at first. Most of the women there were either divorced or widowed.  Beatrice never felt like she connected with them. Most of the men there were also divorced or widowers. It wasn’t long before she stopped going. She was not getting any support and none of the men seemed interested in her. It was about that time that she started to wear make-up. She had never used much when mother was alive.  She really didn’t know how to apply it and used too much when she started. She was always afraid that her dream husband would come along and see her looking plain. She wanted to be ready to impress him. So she applied the make every time she left the house.

There were not a lot of places to go. She went to work. She shopped. She went to the movies. She hated to go out to eat. There was just something humiliating and sad about asking for a table for one.  And she went to church.  She always sat in the same pew.  She sat on the left side near the stained glass window donated by someone long since dead. It was a portrait of a multi-colored Jesus kneeling in Gethsemane in desperate prayer. Although it was not consciously intentional, there was something about that window that connected with Beatrice. And sometimes it made her weep softly in her pew for one.

She wondered what Pastor Tim thought of her when he saw her there every Sunday alone. She wondered if he had any idea how deeply painful loneliness felt. He probably cared about her. But how could he identify with her? He was good looking and popular. He had a pretty wife and three beautiful children. She volunteered regularly in the nursery. She loved the children in church. But they were not her children. She would never have a husband to snuggle up to on a cold evening. She would never have children of her own to love and care for.

So church had become a mixture of feelings. She liked the church. She liked Pastor Tim. But she always felt a twinge of sadness and regret being close to the things she would never have.  “All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong? Pastor Tim looked at Beatrice with pity. Sometimes he almost slipped and called her Eleanor.

A few things to ponder and a sermon

This is a sermon from 2008. A few funny things to ponder follow.

 

NEW WINE  ACTS 2               MAY 11, 2008

THE CHURCH AND POWER

The preacher wanted to use a real attention getting gimmick on Pentecost. So he had the custodian hide up in the rafters above the pulpit. On the cue, “Then the Holy Spirit descended like a dove” the custodian was to release a white dove that would descend. So the time came and the minister said, “Then the Holy Spirit descended like a dove.” Nothing.  He said it again a little louder.  “Then the Holy Spirit descended like a dove.”  Then he heard the custodian up in the rafters say, “Rev. The cat ate the Holy Spirit. Do you want me to throw the cat down?”

I don’t have any gimmicks today. But I understand how difficult it is to explain the power that was present at that first Pentecost.  Luke tries to explain it. He says it sounded like the rush of a mighty wind. He says it was almost like flames were landing on the apostles heads. He doesn’t have words to express what happened in that upper room.  What we know is that it was frightening and challenging and exciting.  All of a sudden, these terrified, cowardly, weak Galilean fishermen were filled with power from above.  Sportscaster Dan Patrick likes to say that a player who is on a hot streak is “en fuego!”

Inflamed with power is not how WE usually think of the church. We think of the church as being polite and nice and calm and predictable. My friend from an Assembly of God church asked me “Why do Presbyterians need a Book of Order?  It would take several sticks of dynamite to disrupt order in your church.  And why would you want to put the Holy Spirit in order anyway?”  Well, he really didn’t understand our heritage and our system.  And I like nice and calm and polite and predictable. But he made me think about what happens when the Holy Spirit shows up.

WHAT IS HAPPENING?

Prudy and I watch a lot of movies. Sometimes you get a bad one.  We watched Cloverfield a week or so ago. It was one of the worst movies ever made. The premise is that a monster comes and destroys New York City.  The story is told from the perspective of a group of Gen Xers who are so annoying in their self-absorption that I was actually anxious for the monster to eat them and shut them up. One of the young women just kept screaming “What is happening? What is happening?”

What was happening in Jerusalem that first Pentecost was not that a monster was destroying the city. Instead a Spirit from God was empowering the followers of Jesus Christ.  What was happening was that they had no more fear of what might happen to them. What was happening was that they were now making sense of the teachings of Jesus. What was happening was that they were able to communicate the great truth of Jesus without barriers. It must have been like the U.N. with no translators needed. What was happening was not an internal good feeling about self.  They were compelled to go into the streets and share the good news which for them had now come alive.

One more movie reference. This one from about 6 years ago. It was called “Chocolat.” The scene I remember is when the young priest is preaching in the stuffy old church. And just as he begins to talk about the fresh Spirit of God being alive, the wind blows the doors of the church open. Wouldn’t it have been great if I had rigged up a way to have the doors blow open just then?  But with my track record with gimmicks the wind probably would have dislodged someone’s wig and scattered by notes. What matters most perhaps is not what was happening at the first Pentecost in Jerusalem. But what is happening THIS Pentecost in New Vernon.  Are we ready to let the wind blow the doors of the church open?

 

POSSIBILITIES

The followers of Jesus are left with the task of living out the gospel. The Spirit doesn’t do it for them. It just gives them the power to see their own potential when they are empowered from above. Today is Mother’s Day as well as I love the connection. It is about potential. Moms give birth and see the potential in their children even when they are tiny and helpless. Moms can always see the potential in their young children. One Mom had her two little sons at the park. A woman asked, “How old are the boys?” And she said, “The doctor is 5 and the ambassador is 2.”

The confirmation class is no different. Parents saw in you when you were tiny babies, the potential that you are now fulfilling.  They believe in you. They always have and they always will.  That belief is not based only on what you have accomplished so far. It is based on the potential for what you can accomplish in the years to come. My prayer is that you continue to grow into your spiritual potential.  It is not enough for you to feel some inner connection with God. Like the first disciples you have to take it out into the streets. You have to allow the Spirit to give you courage to live out your faith in the world out there. We, your church family, believe you will.

That infant church in Jerusalem was filled with raw potential. And we know the story as it unfolds over time. The church of Jesus Christ grows into the world changing force that it is.  The church has made plenty of mistakes along the way. But the Spirit filled faith of 11 men changed the world. That same unlimited potential to change the world is now ours. Pentecost must not become the anniversary of something that happened long ago. We must make sure it remains current events.

 

DRUNK ON GOD

How does Luke explain the existence of the church? He uses terms like fire and wind and power. People don’t usually associate the church with power. Some of the people on the streets that day tried to explain away the miracle of speech exhibited by the disciples. “These men are drunk on new wine.”  I don’t know how that would explain anything. When you are drunk, you may think you are more articulate and witty. But the reality is that you are not.  But in a way, in a strange way, in a way they never intended, they were right.

In the gospel of Matthew Jesus says that it would be silly to put new wine into old wineskins. They will not hold the new wine and they will break and the wine will be lost. The new wine is a way of talking about the new spirit that Jesus brings. Wine is then used as the symbol of the saving blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. The apostle’s were drunk on new wine, but they had not been drinking. The new wine that filled them to bursting was the presence of God in Jesus in the form of the Holy Spirit.  Fredrick Beuchner said, “They were drunk on God.” And it was that intoxication with the Spirit that led to proclamation. They went out into the world to make a difference because they were directed and empowered by the Spirit.

Will Willomon said once, “The way to tell if you are worshipping an idol, a god made in your image, or a living God in whose image you are created is that the Living God can still surprise you.” Wow! Imagine the church saying Come Holy Spirit and the Spirit showed up.  It would be frightening and challenging and exciting and unpredictable.  We need to be careful what we ask for. The Spirit might just blow the doors open without a gimmick.  Pass the new wine, and stand back.

 

THINGS TO PONDER

Why are there interstates in Hawaii?

If corn oil is from corn and peanut oil is from peanuts, where does baby oil come from?

Is there another word for Thesaurus?

What was the best thing before sliced bread?

If a cow laughs hard, does milk come out of its nose?

Why isn’t the word phonetic spelled the way it sounds?

If con is the opposite of pro, then is congress the opposite of progress?

If a man says something in the middle of the forest and there is no woman around to hear it, is he still wrong?

Friday a little sample of my book And See All the People.

Some thoughts about women in ministry

I received word today of the death of Beverly James. She was a classmate of mine in Seminary. Beverly was brilliant and personable and instantly likable. She was the best preacher in my class.   She had courage. Once she and I stood up to preach in class and did the Who’s On First Routine instead. Fortunately, the professor had a good sense of humor.

Yet, when it was time to seek a call, the only offer she got was to do children’s ministry at a big church in Pittsburgh. there she might get the chance to preach twice a year. This was just 40 years ago.

Women in ministry have had a difficult struggle. I believe and hope that attitudes are changing. But for too many years, there has been a bias about women in the pulpit. We live in a culture that is clearly patriarchal. And the church has been no exception.

Some have tried to seek Biblical rationalizations for this injustice. All of the disciples that Jesus called as apostles were men. They were also all Jewish. Why would a gender qualification matter if an ethnic one does not?  Were not many of the followers of Jesus female? According to John, the first person to witness to the risen Christ was a woman. Was not Priscilla one of the teachers of the New Testament church? Were not Phillip’s daughters prophets which is another word for preachers?  Trying to use the Bible to keep women from ministry has no validity.

I have heard people say that they are not against a woman pastor. They just don’t want one in their church. That is sad. They are missing out on some wonderfully gifted pastors and preachers.  Many times it is women who express opposition. Sometimes it takes generations to change wrong attitudes. Women should not have had to wait that long.

I have known and worked with many ordained women who have obviously been called and blessed by God in their work. The notion that one must be male to be a preacher is one that should have died long ago. I have admired their tenacity and their determination. They have had to overcome obstacles that men cannot understand.

Beverly James went on to earn a doctorate in Rhetoric. She then did some adjunct work at the seminary helping to prepare men and women to preach. She was an effective interim pastor in several churches. I am sure she was a tough act to follow for the next called pastor; male or female.

Rest in peace, Beverly. You have fought the good fight and finished the race. You have made it easier for women to follow their call by showing the world that a women can preach as well as any man.