Archive for February, 2013
Rev. Michael Woods
Sunday, February 24, 2013
Second Sunday in Lent
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
We have to give the Pharisees their due! A lot of times in the Gospels and the Book of Acts they’re presented as the bad guys – you might as well dress them in black hats and give them a name like “Black Bart” or something like that. If you were to make a movie of the Gospels, a good actor you might want to ask to play the part of a Pharisee, I think, would be Christopher Lee. You probably remember Christopher Lee – he’s a British actor who’s made a very comfortable living playing bad guys in movies. Back in the 60’s and 70’s he gained notoriety by playing the part of Count Dracula in a series of movies about that character. Later he did a number of Westerns where he always played the villain. In a James Bond movie, he was The Man with the Golden Gun. More recently, he’s been in movies like the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, where he plays an evil wizard. So, whenever you watch a movie and you see Christopher Lee in it, you automatically think, “Oh, we’d better watch out for this guy – this has got to be one of the villains!”
But – you know what – in real life, I understand he’s probably one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met … the perfect English gentleman … you probably couldn’t meet anyone nicer and less villainous. You would think it amazing that not only could he ever play a bad guy in a movie, but that he could do it so well!
Likewise, the Gospels occasionally present us with another side – a better side – to the Pharisees – the quintessential bad guys of the New Testament. There’s Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea, for instance, who both seem to be followers of Jesus and support him in his ministry. And Jesus seems to have some kind of special connection with the Pharisees. Not all of them agree totally with the message he is teaching – a lot of them want to argue with him about it – but overall, they see Jesus as one of them. He’s doing a lot of the same things they are doing – carrying out his ministry outside the bounds of the Temple – he teaches in the synagogues, as they do, and the people call him rabbi, as the Pharisees are called. And although they may have some differences of opinion with Jesus about particular points of theology, the Pharisees do seem to be very interested in his message and they go out of their way to engage him in conversation and most of them seem to consider what he has to say very seriously.
And we have to give the Pharisees their due, because I believe without them the religion of Judaism would not have survived – it would have perished in the First Century about forty years after the time of Christ when the Roman army lay siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple built by Herod the Great. So, I want to resist painting the Pharisees with too broad a paint brush. They have to tendency to be far more complex than we want to give them credit for sometimes and can surprise us in different ways.
In this morning’s story, they give us one such surprise. Jesus has begun a journey … probably the last of his ministry. Luke tells us that Jesus was going through one town and village after another, teaching the people about the Kingdom of Heaven, as he makes his way toward Jerusalem. Now, Jesus has begun this journey fully aware of what awaits him there: suffering and crucifixion. If you recall, over these last few weeks we’ve talked about the fact that he’s been trying to warn all of his disciples about this very thing!
Now, the Pharisees, who’ve had their differences of opinion with Jesus in the past, put aside those differences and try to warn him to stay away from Jerusalem … his life is in great peril if he were to set foot in there. They are concerned about him. But Jesus essentially tells him that they’re not telling him anything he doesn’t already know.
But it’s one thing to talk about danger and peril in theory, when it’s all so far and distant. You might feel a sense of false bravado, as if you were Superman – there’s nothing for you to be afraid of; you can face anything, even death, in the eye. But when it gets up close, it starts to look a lot more ominous and you can find a lot of reason to be afraid. It’s a lot like this fiscal cliff thing that keeps coming up in the government. When its still a few months off, it doesn’t seem all that bad, but as it gets closer and closer, and the news media starts to describe what programs are going to be cut and who will loose jobs and whose benefits are going to be reduced, you start to feel anxious and you’re filled with this overwhelming sense of dread. At least, I know I am … especially when I think about how all this will affect programs that help the poor and how it will have negative consequences on our economy’s struggling recovery. You hope that somebody finds another way and they find it fast.
I think Abram is at the end of a similar rope in the passage from Genesis. God has made a great promise to him and his wife Sarai. They were promised they would dwell in a new land and that they would be the ancestors of a great nation, and their descendants would be as numerous as the dust that covered the Earth. Well, Abram can see the new land – he’s already living in it. But at this point in the tale, he’s approaching 90 years of age … he and Sarai are yet to see the second part of God’s promise be fulfilled.
And as we read the scripture, it seems like to me that Abram gets a little testy with God. What we read in this passage sounds like a bitter lament: “You have not given us any offspring, so now I have no other choice maybe but to adopt one of the children of my servants and let them inherit the estate you have given me.” Abram has given up and is making other plans. He’s already started work on Plan B.
The journey of Lent, in a lot of ways, mimics the journey we go through in our individual lives. We start off with a lot of promises … a lot of high hopes and dreams! Do you remember what it was like the day you graduated from high school? Or the day you graduated from college? The day you finished your last day of military service? You had the whole world in your hands, didn’t you. There was nothing you couldn’t accomplish, you believed, if you just put your mind to it … no challenge you couldn’t face head on … you had such dreams … such aspirations! Then one day we all woke up and discovered we were a lot older than we used to be. I discovered I didn’t have as much hair as I used to and what I had left was turning gray … so, I could no longer get by on just my good looks. There is so much left undone! So much that we never were able to get around to! We started out thinking we were going to make our mark on the world. We started out hoping (at least, I pray that we all were hoping) we would make this world a better place … that somehow our lives would touch the lives of other people in a positive way … we would leave some sort of legacy for the world. How do you find faith and not loose hope when your plans for the future never worked out?
Even Jesus seems to voice some disappointment things didn’t turn out the way he had hoped they would: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, yet you were not willing.”
You know, Christianity began its own journey over two thousand years ago. The Faith started out with a lot of high hopes and aspirations! But it’s now the 21st Century. We still have war, crime, violence. People are still abused and oppressed. There is still poverty, neglect and illness. And even more shameful is the fact that the Christian church has not only been complacent in that, but has even been the cause of it at times! Jesus preached a gospel of love and forgiveness, and everyone agrees that it’s a wonderful message, but no one seems willing to take it to heart. People seem like they’ve all given up.
I see a trend in movies and art these days. There are a lot of movies and novels coming out with apocalyptic themes … stories about the end of the world. Movies like: The Book of Eli, 2012, Contagion, or The Road. Books like: The Left Behind series. These are a sign, I think, that a lot of people are giving up. They want an asteroid to come – like the one that blew up over Russia last week – or a super flu virus and wipe off everything on the planet so we can start over. They’ve given up on the good news that Jesus preached … they’re starting to make other plans – they’re working on Plan B.
But if there’s a common message in today’s two passages, it’s that God doesn’t give up! God is sticking with Plan A. God hasn’t lost the hopes, dreams, and the aspirations that God began with. God still believes in the cause! God still believes it can work and it’s not too late! That’s good news for the human race, I believe. You know why?
Because Plan A – that’s us, the human race. God hasn’t given up on us! The entire witness of the Holy Bible is that God has not given up, is not giving up, and will not give up on you, me, and everybody else who has ever dared to hope and dream that this world can be a better place. God has faith in us! God’s faith will sustain us even when ours has fled the scene! God’s faith is enough to keep hope alive!
(Also published on goodreads.com)
Three and a half stars out of five. It’s been a while since I last read read anything by Varley, the last time being the early to mid nineties and the Book was Steel Beach. I’m familiar mainly with his “Eight Worlds” stories which include Steel Beach, The Ophiuchi Hotline and The Barbie Murders. This is the first book I have read by him set outside of that universe.
I want to quickly address what I didn’t like about the book and get that out of the way, because there are some redeeming things to say about this work of apocalyptic fiction. My main dislike of the work is his characters come across as flat and two dimensional. Varley seems to have come up with a very good premise for and end of the world story, which is well researched and thought out, but then didn’t take enough time to fill his story with believable and sympathetic characters. He resorts to stock characters. (Somewhat ironically, the main character is a screenwriter living in LA, who makes a living writing sitcoms filled with stock characters.) If you are expecting (as I was) richly developed if somewhat eccentric characters from the Eight Worlds series, you might be a little disappointed with this book. It is difficult to care about what happens to them or to sympathize with their struggles. In short: a plot driven story with very little character development.
Having said that, what I did like about the novel and what earns it an extra star and a half, is Varley has a very different take on the apocalyptic genre than other writers. Much of what passes in the sf field these days as apocalyptic literature incomprehensibly seems to celebrate the decline of civilization into complete chaos and focuses on the theme of solipsism. One particular sf writer who has written a number of apocalyptic novels (whose name will go unmentioned because I don’t find anything redeeming in anything he has written) has a tendency to group his characters on the basis of race. His villains are almost invariably Hispanic or Asian and his protagonists are always Caucasian of Euro-American descent.
Fortunately, Varley has better sense than to devolve into stereotypical racism or even thematic solipsism. Although his main characters seem to be white (he really doesn’t mention their race), ultimately racial descent is not a factor in determining who’s good and who’s evil. Good and evil are both equal opportunity employers in this apocalypse, recruiting impartially among all races and ethnicities. I find that fact commendable in a sub-genre often too filled with works that provide a platform for writers (and their readers) to give vent to their most base emotions and vile opinions.
What determines who is good and who is evil in Varley’s take on the end of the world (or at least of civilization) is a willingness on the part of the characters to pitch in, work together for the common good, and realize that the survival of the human race depends on community. Throughout the story, the characters struggle with the tension of looking out after themselves vs. helping others in need. Sometimes those others in need are neighbors and friends, sometimes they are strangers met on the street in their travels. In this sense, Varley turns his story of an apocalypse into a parable of our own pre-apocalyptic civilization that also struggles with this tension on a daily basis. <
One final note concerning the word “apocalypse.” In our modern world, we define “apocalypse” to mean something akin to the end of the world. In reality it’s a Greek word that means “revelation,” implying that something which has been hidden is now being revealed. In ancient times, apocalyptic literature (e.g. The Book of Revelation in the New Testament) was always a coded message about the current time, sometimes projected into the future, and ending with a message of hope. What Varley reveals to us in this novel of the near future is the state of the current human condition. True to the ancient tradition, he leaves us with a message of hope and not despair.
No Shortcuts Through the Desert
Rev. Michael Woods
Sunday, February 17, 2013
First Sunday in Lent
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
Last week saw witness to one of those rare confluence of self-contradictory holidays – the Season of Lent, when most people give up chocolate, began on Wednesday and then was followed immediately on Thursday by (of all things!) Valentine’s Day! If I didn’t love chocolate so much, I would have thought that was funny! And I note that both of these are religious holidays of the Christian calendar – you would think the church would do a little better job of planning these things out ahead of time!
And if that in and of itself wasn’t bad enough, and as those of you who have children or grandchildren in Girl Scouts know, this is the time of year the Scouts begin to deliver the cookie orders they took a few weeks ago!
Lent – it looks like – is off to a very trying start!
Why do we have the tradition of giving up something for Lent? What is Lent supposed to be about anyway? For myself, I think of Lent as a journey.
Throughout the scriptures – in both the Old and the New Testament – we see references made to journeys. In the Book of Genesis, we read of the Great Flood that lasted 40 days and 40 nights, while Noah and his family traveled in the ark. In the rest of the Torah, we read of the story of how the children of Israel wandered through the desert for 40 years. And in the New Testament, we read that our Lord and savior fasted in the wilderness for 40 days.
What would it be like, I wonder, to start out on a journey knowing it will last for forty days – over a month! And knowing that – not only is it going to last 40 days – but every one of those days is going to be a hard day! Another day of nothing to eat but manna … another day of hearing the rain pound relentlessly on the decks … another day of being on a journey that has been going on for so long you’ve started to forget where it was you were going or why you were going there in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’d be tempted to take a short cut.
After all, isn’t that kind of our natural inclination? To take the shortest route that will get us there quicker? Find the quick, easy solution to our problems? And for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. When you travel from home to work, you usually take the shortest or quickest route to get there … you want to get there on time … you don’t want to be late.
But Lent is not a typical kind of journey – it’s not a journey that our bodies take, it’s a journey of the soul. It’s not a journey where the greatest hazards we are going to face will be tired feet or a flat tire or running out of gas, but nevertheless if we are not careful and we do not attend properly to the things we ought to attend to, it’s a journey that can leave us tired, exhausted or stranded in different kinds of ways.
The message that I take from this morning’s scripture readings – both the Old and the New Testament readings, and every other scripture in the Bible that is about a journey or about some kind of transition – is that when it comes to (what I want to call) “soul journeys” there are no shortcuts. Shortcuts will lead you astray … shortcuts promise to get you where you want to go a lot quicker with a lot less fuss, but they always take you in the wrong direction and where you end up is not where you thought you would be.
Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry. Every temptation that he faces during that time is a temptation to take a shortcut. He faces the temptation to use his power to satisfy his own physical hunger … he faces the temptation to accomplish his mission of spreading the kingdom of heaven here on Earth through the grab of political power … and he faces the temptation to attract people to follow him by the use of cheap, easy tricks. Shortcuts – all of them.
Many of us in the church or in our own individual lives face the same temptations that Christ did. We waste what resources and power we have on satisfying our own needs and ignore the needs of others … we advocate legislating our own brand of morality so everybody else has to follow it whether they want to or not because trying to convince them to change their hearts or minds is just too long a process and we don’t want to have to bother with that … or we think that if we could just find some program that would that would make the church more prominent in the community, or if we were just famous enough or rich enough ourselves, people would like us better and be attracted to us more – we value popularity over truth.
But none of these are inherently bad for us or the church. But when you stop and think about it: out of all of the things that Jesus gave up during his soul journey, none of them were inherently bad for him – not bread, not power, not fame and fortune. In reasonable quantities, none of these things can destroy you. In reasonable quantities, some of these things can even be good for you! The temptation Jesus faced – and the temptation we all face in our individual lives and in the life of our church – is to take some kind of shortcut without knowing where it is we’re going to end up … where is all this going to lead? I have a tendency to do that sometimes when I’m driving – I see a street going to off to the side, and I think, “Now, that must be a quicker way!” And then in a couple of blocks, the street dead ends or curls back around in the wrong direction. But if I have a map with me in the car and it’s up to date – and these days you don’t even have to have a paper map … there’s a map on my iPhone – and it can show me where I am on it and where I need to go. I can see where all these side streets end and begin … I can see what street dead ends … which ones curl around … and you know what, with the technology we have today, the application on my phone will even tell me which roads are closed for construction! If you’ve tried to navigate through downtown Columbus with all of the construction on the Interstates, that’s helpful information to have.
Having a map of some sort gives you the big picture. And I think that’s the reason Jesus is able to resist the temptation he faces – he stays focused on the big picture. He doesn’t allow his vision to be clouded or restricted … he can see beyond immediate concerns … he can look beyond the shortsightedness of glamor and power and see something that’s far more beautiful and much more rewarding.
And what he sees, friends, is Easter Sunday … because that’s where Lent leads us … to Easter and to resurrection … to sanctification and renewal. And we can get there, but we don’t want to loose our focus. Because there’s a lot that can distract us along the way. There’s the constant barrage of temptations, to take the easy path. Then there’s the kind of temptation that the children of Israel faced in their journey through the wilderness – and that’s the temptation to just give up the journey altogether, to say to ourselves what’s the point? I can’t do this! And before we can even get to Easter, Holy Week is in store for us … the week that our Lord was betrayed, arrested, denied, tortured, and crucified. And on the night of his arrest, he would pray, “Father, if it be your will, may this cup pass from me without my drinking, yet not my will but yours be done.” But there would be no other way, no shortcut, only the road that leads to Calvary.
But Jesus knows that road doesn’t end at Calvary … he can see further than that. He knows this road that he walks will take him on to Easter Sunday! He knows this road doesn’t end on Good Friday with pain and death by crucifixion – Jesus can see all the way to resurrection!
During Lent, Christ invites us to share this journey with him. We don’t have to walk this road alone, his Holy Spirit is with us and guides us.
As we begin this journey this Lenten season, we pause for a moment at our Lord’s Table. Here we nourish ourselves with bread and the fruit of the vine. Let the body and the blood of our Lord fortify us for the road ahead.
Coming Down From Our Mountains
Rev. Michael Woods
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
The perfect vacation – Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – Some modern demons – MLK’s mountaintop
– Down in the Valley.
If you were to ask me to describe the perfect vacation spot, I would probably tell you it’s somewhere on a mountain. When I think of the mountains, I think of a peaceful place … far away from traffic jams, business meetings … a place where the real world isn’t constantly pressing in on you, demanding your undivided attention to solve one crisis or another. There have been a few times Myong and I have taken a vacation in the mountains somewhere, stayed in a cabin or a lodge. I usually bring a lot of books with me, expecting to have a lot of down time and do a lot of reading. But I’ve found I don’t really get a lot of reading done … I spend a lot of the time just gazing out into the distance, looking at the valley below, watching birds fly by … just enjoying the quiet and the rare opportunity to let my mind be still.
Somehow, someway, mountains have a way of doing that to people. When we lived in Atlanta, we would regularly go to Stone Mountain, just fifteen or twenty minutes outside of the city, and we would hike to the top. And on a clear day, and when the smog was at a minimum, you could look from the top of the mountain and see the whole metro Atlanta area all at once … and everything seemed all calm and serene, but you knew that down below you – well, it was a madhouse as big cities can be. But standing there on top of the mountain, your whole perspective about that changed … none of those worries seemed to matter any more … it was like you were “above it all” both figuratively and literally.
If you’ve watched as many movies as I’ve watched in my lifetime, and I’ve watched a whole slew of movies, you know that in any movie set in the city of Los Angeles there’s this one famous shot taken from the San Bernardino Mountains that shows the whole Greater Los Angeles metropolitan area at once, usually at night time. From that vantage point, what you see is this huge city of about 18 million people seems to be nestled quietly in this little valley below the mountains. You see the lights of people’s houses, of the downtown business district, of Beverly Hills, of Rodeo Drive and the Santa Monica Freeway spread out before you – and it all seems so peaceful.
And this scene can be kind of surreal because you know up close the city isn’t like that at all. Up close, you know it’s noisy and polluted … people are blowing their horns at each other on the freeway. Up close, you remember this is the same city of the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed the failure to convict the police officers involved. Up close, you see crime and gang violence … you see drug addiction and young women being exploited for prostitution. Up close you see that Los Angeles is a mirror for the problems that every city faces, whether big or small … including Atlanta, including Columbus, including Reynoldsburg.
But up there on the mountain, you feel like you’re just a little bit closer to God … you feel like you’ve been lifted above the mess we human beings have made of this world. No wonder, in so many religions throughout this world, mountains seem to be a special place where divine inspiration can happen. All the great prophets of every major religion seem to have had mountaintop experiences of one sort or another: Muhammad, Zarathustra. A group of American Indians, the Lakota, believe the Black Hills of South Dakota to be a sacred place where all the people of the world were born. Throughout history and all across the world, mountains are sacred places, where if you are daring enough, physically and spiritually, you can climb a little ways up, transcend this plane of existence, come a little closer to God – even see God face-to-face – and become a little better than you are.
Moses is one such religious leader who has a mountaintop experience. Whenever he wants to be close to God, he just goes up on a mountain. It’s on Mt. Sinai that he meets God, converses with the Almighty and receives the tablets of the Ten Commandments. And he’s completely changed by the experience. The scripture says when he came down from the mountain, his face shone brightly, and the people were afraid of him … they didn’t want to come anywhere near him. They could tell something had happened to him up there and they were unsettled by it.
It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus takes his disciples up on a mountain. Given the history of mountains and their importance in Jewish culture, I can imagine the disciples can feel a little excitement, a little anticipation – they surely must expect something important is about to happen. And even though Jesus has kept them up all night praying, and they were “weighed down with sleep,” they manage to keep themselves awake, and their expectations are not disappointed. They see Jesus go through this startling transformation: his face begins to glow, and his clothes become a dazzling white – and by “dazzling,” the word that Luke uses in the Gospel suggests that the color white Jesus’ clothes had turned into at this point could produce a sense of ecstasy in you to look at it.
And then, things just start to get better and better! Moses and Elijah appear and they talk to Jesus! The disciples are amazed! Jesus has hooked up with two of the greatest prophets of Jewish history – Moses who represents the founding of the nation of Israel, who led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and guided them through the wilderness for 40 years; and Elijah who is the prophet of the End Times, the prophet who, according to the Book of Malachi, will one day turn the people’s hearts back to the covenant with God. Jesus obviously has some good connections!
So, Peter suggests building a kind of monument to the event – three dwellings, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, but also (and this is not coincidentally) one each for Peter, James and John to tend to individually. It’s clear Peter and his two fellow disciples don’t want to go back down the mountain. They want to linger … they want this glorious moment to last forever – or at least as long as possible. They want to be up where they can be a little closer to holiness and never have to worry about all the bothers of the world below.
And who can blame them? Jesus has already said what lies ahead for them when they head back down. In the preceding verses found just before this passage in Luke, Jesus tells his disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed….” (v.22). Wow! Who wants to go back to all that?
And what Jesus said just six verses earlier is just the half of it! As we read later on in today’s passage, we come to find out that the world they walk back into is a world haunted by demons. The one that possess the young boy is said to cause him to shriek, send him into convulsions and make him foam at the mouth. The spirit seems to seize him at unexpected moments, and no matter how hard they have tried, the disciples were unable to cast the demon out.
Now, in our scientific age we might explain this event very differently than Luke does here. This young man’s condition seems to be similar to what we know as epilepsy and we have various ways of treating that today. But I believe we still live in a world that is haunted by demons that are no less real than the way Luke thinks of them in this text. We prayed this morning, concerning some of those demons of this world: prejudice, fear, a disregard for truth, poverty, and our society’s glorification of the false idol of redemptive violence. Some might say, No, these are just ideas, concepts – not evil spirits. But these ideas can possess our whole mind … make us do things not in our best interest … estrange us from the people who love us … and drive us to a place where we are far away from God. That sounds like what a demon does to me.
If you have been to the mountaintop and you’ve seen a better way … if you’ve come face-to-face with God and stayed even a short time in a realm where the evil of this world cannot touch you, it can’t even come close … why would you agree to leave, and return to dwell in the valley of demons?
In the last sermon he preached the night before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of having been to the mountaintop … and of what he saw there and the glorious future that waits for all God’s children there. But what he didn’t say in that sermon but we understand, is that he came down from mountain. He came down from the mountain and went to Montgomery … and to Selma, and to Birmingham … and to Atlanta, and finally to Memphis. Thank God, he came down from the Mountain!
Because, it’s here in the valley where you come up-close and face-to-face with the sins of this world … its injustices, its fear mongering, its self-contradictions. It’s here in this demon-haunted valley that God’s ministry of redeeming this world in all its falleness really takes place … and it is here that God calls us to be the disciples of Christ, to follow in his footsteps, to bring the message of the good news of the gospel, to let people know that the love of God can save us – is the only thing that can save us … and there’s nothing we have to do to earn it … it’s a free gift.
And in spreading that message, we join Christ in his work in driving out the demons that haunt this world … we bring comfort to those who are suffering, healing to those who are wounded. We bring a little bit of the mountaintop back down with us, when we do that … we share the vision of what we saw and let people know of the miraculous things we have come to know about.
Come down from the mountain, but bring a little bit of it with you.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What Lasts Forever
Rev. Mike Woods
February 3, 2013
4th Sunday of Epiphany
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
It’s a sign of the times we live in that one of the big news stories from the past week was a story that initially wasn’t picked up by any of the traditional news outlets – not CNN, not FoxNews, not any of the network news organizations, although it eventually found its way there. Still, as of yet, I haven’t seen it in the Columbus Dispatch. It’s a story that was first reported, where most stories are initially reported today, through informal channels of the internet – social media websites like facebook or Twitter, and blog posts like The Drudge Report or the Huffington Post. And although some of you may have already heard about the story, I relate it to you this morning with a little bit of hesitation … because it doesn’t reflect well on my profession – the vocation of pastor … and it reminds all of us that we pastors are human, too. We make mistakes … we’re not perfect. We can be a little sanctimonious at times and even a bit of a cheapskate.
For those of you who haven’t heard the tale – it goes something like this: Last Sunday evening, following worship at a church somewhere in St. Louis, a large group of church members, along with their pastor, visited a restaurant, as they usually did following evening worship. Since their party was a large one, an automatic gratuity was added to the individual bills, as is the custom in most restaurants. All of the church members paid their bills including the tip, with the exception of one member – their pastor, who marked through the amount of the tip on her receipt and left in its place a big zero and a rather snarky comment: “I give God 10% why do you get 18(?)”
If any of you have ever tried to make a living by waiting tables, you know tips are what you live by. The Federal minimum wage for wait staff is only $2.13 per hour, and the last time that minimum wage was raised, Ronald Regan was president.
Well, the next thing that happened was a picture of the receipt, along with the pastor’s comment, was posted on the internet. The story went viral! Everybody and everybody’s brother had to comment on it! And the comments that were posted online weren’t very kind in their judgment of the pastor. And although indentifying information was left out of the photo, somebody eventually figured out who this person was … and the pastor was publicly embarrassed … and the church she worked for was publicly embarrassed.
Now, to her credit, the pastor (whose name I’m purposefully leaving out because it’s not my point to embarrass her or her church any further) has since admitted she made a mistake … she had a lapse in judgment and brought shame on her calling and her congregation. But, then she made an even further mistake, after she was publicly exposed, by calling up the restaurant and demanding that everyone who worked there be fired – not just the employee who posted the picture of the receipt online, but everybody! The manager, the other wait staff who were serving other tables and had no contact with the pastor’s party, the bartenders, the bus boys, the cooks, the custodian.
Like I said, the incident reminds us that, in spite of our unique calling to ordered ministry – to fulfill special functions within the church – we pastors are human, too. Sometimes, we insist too often on having our own way … sometimes we can be a little too arrogant and rude … and we don’t practice mutual forbearance, as we should. All the things Paul says love is (patient, kind) we are not; and all the things Paul says love is not (envious, boastful, irritable) we all to often are.
When we meditate on the qualities of love Paul describes in his letter, I think we see an ideal … we see the Divine Image in which we were created … we see the human race as God intended us to be … as God wants for us and calls us to be. It is a description of the greatest gift God has given to the human race. But it is a gift we often shun because we wrongly believe it’s something that weakens us or is not in our own best interests.
A few weeks ago, I told you about Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon who had a near death experience that changed his life. The most important and wonderful thing he learned from that experience, he said, was not the glimpse of heaven he was afforded or any of the miraculous things he saw – it was the knowledge that he was deeply loved … that love was the most powerful force in the universe, and nothing, no matter how dark or evil or hateful, would ever overcome it. Whenever the universe comes to an end and the last star dies out and nothing remains, love will still be there.
Paul gives us a beautiful description of love – one that is poetic, we read it often at weddings. But it’s a description that ought to challenge us more that it ought to soothe us – because everything it says love is we often are not, and everything it says love is not, we all to often are.
So when I read the second text from the Gospel of Luke – the story of Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth and how the crowd probably wanted for him to perform a miracle and Jesus doesn’t do so – I’m not too quick to be too critical of the people there. Now – they come across as arrogant … rude … they insist on having their own way. Jesus has come to teach them about love … he wants to expand their ability to show love to each other and to gentiles, against whom the Jewish people felt a lot of prejudice. And the Nazarenes want to throw him off a cliff for it.
They’re a lot like us: they want to keep Jesus in this little box … they want him to be their Jesus … their hometown boy who’s been off to the big city of Capernaum and done wondrous things there and made quite a name for himself. We do the same in the church with “our Jesus” … our Jesus who came and died for us and not for people we don’t like … people we don’t think deserve his grace (as if grace were something that could be deserved). In her book, Traveling Mercies, the writer Anne Lamont quotes a friend of hers as saying, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
When we insist that God has the same opinion about things as we do, but we never open ourselves to the light of scripture to learn otherwise, we bow down to the false idol of “our Jesus.” When we insist that being made in the “image of God” means that God looks like me, we raise our angry voices along with those of the crowd in Nazareth as they rush Jesus to the edge of the cliff.
One of the first profound theological moments I witnessed as a young child occurred while watching an episode of the old television series All in the Family. Archie Bunker and George Jefferson were arguing about what God looked like. Archie claimed that God was white and George claimed that God was Black. But neither one of them could see the image of God in each other.
We in the church often insist on our own way, and we are not open to the “better way” that Paul talks about – God’s way, the way of love.
Jesus came two thousand years ago and shared with us a very simple message – that love is the answer to every problem that human society faces. And like the crowd in Nazareth, we want to argue with him about it … we want to say that the world’s problems are just too complex for so simple an answer … all this stuff about love and peace and hope and faith is beautiful and wonderful in theory, but it’s not very practical. We want to chase Jesus to the edge of the cliff for even suggesting such a thing.
Jesus doesn’t let us get too comfortable with our fears and prejudices and our over-inflated sense of self-importance. He’s always nudging us to go in a direction we don’t always want to go – God’s way, the way of love. And we’re afraid to go with him because we’re afraid the crowd might want to throw us over the edge, too.
It may seem like too simple an answer, but in truth walking the way of love is the most complicated and treacherous journey we can ever undertake. If it were truly simple, we would choose it far more often than we do. Instead, we choose the easier self satisfying way of taking revenge, of taking advantage of others so we can get ahead, of watching out for our own self interests. Jesus offers us another way that will liberate us, will be the answer to every problem we have ever faced, but will also be the hardest thing we have ever done. And that is to walk the path of love.
Paul tells us that love never ends … along with faith and hope, it will continue to exist long after the Earth we live on has disappeared. How it will outlast the evil that so defines the human condition – evil seems so much stronger, so much more powerful – I can’t tell you. I don’t know the answer to that, and neither does Paul. But he does tell us we will eventually come to understand those things one day: “For now we see as in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now, I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Friends, it’s hard for us to understand how we can never go wrong choosing the path of love. It’s not always the easiest path – it’s usually the hardest … it’s never without a lot of heartache and emotional trauma … and it’s not always the most immediately rewarding path, either. It’s the path of the cross … it leads to Calvary … the path our Savior walked two thousand years ago to bring us Salvation … and the road we find ourselves on as a result of that Salvation.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.