Michael W Woods
Michael Woods is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He has served as solo pastor of a small church in Elberton, GA and as a chaplain at St. Joseph's Hospital and Campbell-Stone Senior Living Apartments, both of Atlanta. Currently, he serves as an on-call chaplain for OhioHealth in Columbus, OH where he lives with his wife, also an ordained minister, and their two cats.
Posted in Essays on October 1, 2013
As a Christian minister, I must say that I was very heartened to see a photograph of you published on the Huffington Post website a few days ago, kneeling in front of our nation’s capital, holding hands with others’ whose beliefs you share, and head bowed in prayer. It is heartening to see you take time from your busy schedule, rallying support to repeal a healthcare reform bill, and by doing that, deny access to healthcare for millions by keeping the cost of insurance premiums at their current unaffordable levels, to say a word of prayer. I say this even while mindful of the words of Christ, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them” (Matt. 6:5). But knowing that God is a loving and forgiving God, I’m sure you can get a pass on that one.
But I must admit to confusion as to which god you were praying to and what exactly you were praying for. Was it the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who taught us, “As you have done unto the least of these, so you have done unto me,” … who healed the lame, the sick, the blind, the demon possessed throughout the Four Gospels without excluding on the basis of ability to pay, pre-existing conditions, or adherence to a particular political or religious affiliation?
Or is it the god revealed in the writings of Ayn Rand, whose philosophy, I understand, you have studied and admire greatly? The god of Free Market Enterprise, who despises love and compassion as weakness? Who preaches the gospel of “Survival of the Richest?” Who urges us to commit the sin of Sodom – pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but does not aid the poor and the needy (Ezekiel 16:49-50)?
As a nation, we have a choice to make – which God or god we will serve? I’m sorry to inform you, we can’t choose both – it must be one or the other. As Christ told us, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” For my part, I have chosen the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ; so I support the Affordable Care Act, food stamps, TANF, unemployment compensation, raising the minimum wage, and a whole host of things you are mostly likely against. I support these things not because I am a liberal, but because my faith informs my politics and not the other way around. But since you apparently believe in the power of prayer (assuming the picture I saw of you was not some staged photo-op), I want you to know I’m praying for you – but, I’m probably not praying for the same kind of things you are. I’m praying that you and the rest of our elected leaders will put behind them their partisan bickering, pass a continuing resolution (better yet, a budget which is really what you should be working on!), and allow the ACA a chance to work. In short, I’m praying God will soften your heart.
Grace and peace,
Rev. Michael W. Woods
Posted in Sermons on September 1, 2013
What’s in it for Jesus?
Rev. Michael Woods
Bethany Presbyterian Church
September 1, 2013
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Labor Day has always been an odd sort of holiday we celebrate in America. Most of our holidays celebrate great events or great people. Columbus Day, for instance, commemorates the discovery of the Americas by Europeans … Veterans Day only commemorates those who have served in our armed forces but also the end of the First World War … the celebration of Thanksgiving remembers the time of the early colonization of America and the return of a bountiful harvest that allowed the pilgrims to survive a harsh winter … there are the great religious festivals of Christmas and Easter … we celebrate the birthdays of our some of our most famous presidents and of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King … and then Memorial Day remembers those who died defending our nation’s freedoms – its celebration began at the end of the American Civil War as a way of remembering both Union and Confederate troops who died during what is still the costliest war for the US in terms of loss of human life … and then on the Fourth of July we celebrate the birth of our nation and the ideals of freedom and democracy.
And then there’s Labor Day! It doesn’t really commemorate any special event – nothing great or important happened on the first Monday of September anytime in our nation’s history that needed to be celebrated or remembered in anyway … at least that I’m aware of … the day was chosen solely because it fell about halfway between the Fourth and Columbus Day. And it doesn’t commemorate anyone particularly famous, or wealthy, or who has a chapter in our public school’s history books devoted to him or her and to the things they did.
Instead, Labor Day commemorates the average American worker. People like you and me. People, who by the work of their hands forged great girders of steel to build bridges or erect skyscrapers … who poured the concrete to build dams that generate electricity to light a path in the darkness … it celebrates those workers who create things with their minds, who deal in the marketplace of ideas and whose major tool is the human brain … and it celebrates immigrant workers who labor 12 to 16 hours a day in the hot Florida sun picking the tomatoes that we buy at the grocery store or add to our plate when we go through the salad bar at a local restaurant. It celebrates the common man and woman … it honors Rosie the Riveter and her spirit of “We can do it!” … it holds up the contributions of every worker … regardless of race or nationality … young or old … male or female. For one day in the life of our nation, we are called upon to hold up the lowliest of our people and say to them: “Yours has been an important contribution to our society … we couldn’t have gotten as far as we have without the work you have done for us all … and we will not forget you.”
Or do we really do all that? Do we say all those things to ourselves? Do we actually pause and reflect as we are called to on Labor Day?
Or do we just light up the barbeque? Break out the beer? Turn on the TV and watch the game? Is Labor Day a day we honor the common woman and man, or is it just the beginning of football season?
Do we do what Labor Day calls us to do, or do we ignore that call and do something else? If we did what Labor Day called us to do … to pause and reflect and remember that without the labor of the common people we could not live in the world we live in today, and then give them honor for what they have done … this holiday would have the potential to be the most Christ-like of holidays our nation celebrates.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has gone to the home of a man who is a leader of the Pharisees. No name is given but we can assume this man was a well respected leader … someone the other Pharisees looked up to and admired. And though Jesus has been invited into this man’s house and to be part of the feast he was giving, there are some who have gathered there that day who don’t like Jesus, who oppose the gospel he has been preaching … a gospel that is based on love and compassion for all of God’s people… on equality and social justice … and they hope to trap Jesus somehow so they can bring charges against him and get rid of him. And everything that happens at that gathering on that day – some of which we read about this morning and some of which we skipped over – everything that happens reveals to us that the society of Jesus’ time was a society that was preoccupied with the concepts of honor and shame. But Jesus knows that the people around him don’t truly understand those concepts … they have gotten them completely backwards.
He notices they are all clamoring for the seat of the most honored guest – those are the places to the immediate right and left of the host at the table. We still do something like today. Whenever there’s a huge function or a banquet, there are tables set near the front of the banquet hall – those are for the heads of that organization or the people who are throwing the party. Then there are tables a little further down for those a little less important than the first but who are a little more important than the rest, and so on. And while these Pharisees are vying against each other for the choicest spots, Jesus paraphrases for them some of the wisdom of Solomon … a verse from the Book of Proverbs they all should have known about (arguably) but apparently had forgotten about. He tells them:
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of
honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and
the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’
and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited,
go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you,
‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the
table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble
themselves will be exalted.”
When I served as a pastor at my first church in Georgia, I was taught a very important lesson in the subject of honor by the African-American pastor of a neighboring Presbyterian Church. It was a Sunday, during my first year of ministry, and I had been invited by this other pastor to come to a revival that was taking place at his church. Now the speaker was a minister who, at that time, was the president of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus for the Northeast Georgia Presbytery, and I wanted to meet him and hear him preach. So after the service was over at the church where I was pastor, my wife and I ate a quick lunch and went over to the revival. We got there a little late, the service was well underway, the sermon was already well underway, and we did what most Presbyterians would do in a situation like that: we slipped quietly (and what we hoped was unnoticeably) into one of the pews at the very back of the church.
Well, obviously we weren’t about to slip in go unnoticed. And when Reverend Moon, who was the pastor of the church, became aware of my presence, he quietly called one of his elders over to him and whispered something to him … the elder looked over in my direction … and then came down the aisle over to the pew where I was sitting. He leaned over and quietly said, “Rev. Woods, Rev. Moon respectfully requests your presence in the chancel with him and Rev. Smith.”
It was the tradition of that church, as it is in African American churches throughout the south (is it in the north?), that visiting ministers were to be invited to sit in the chancel with the pastor. I was being invited to come forward … to move up. I, who had taken a pew in the back, was being asked to move up higher … to be honored in the presence of everyone. And as I walked down the aisle to the chancel area … as I was welcomed by Rev. Moon and offered a seat … as Rev. Smith paused in the middle of his sermon and offered me his hand … somewhere in the back of my mind was what Jesus was saying in this passage from scripture: “’Friend, move up here to a better seat,’ and you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”
That’s what I was thinking. But that was not the real lesson I learned about honor on that day. What Rev. Moon taught me about honor is this: Any lesson on the subject of honor comes with an equivalent lesson on the subject of humility! That’s because honor and humility are two sides of the same coin: you cannot and should not have one without having an equal amount of the other.
Rev. Smith continued to preach for a long time. When he had completed his remarks, we sang a hymn. When we had finished the hymn, Rev. Moon stepped back into the pulpit and he said, “We are very pleased to have a special guest with us this afternoon, the Rev. Mike Woods who is the newly called minister at First Presbyterian.”
Then he turned slowly to me and said, “Rev. Woods, would you honor the congregation with a few words?”
I had nothing prepared! What was I going to say? You can see from all these notes I have up here, I’m a manuscript preacher. I can’t just walk up into a pulpit and just start speaking to people! I have to have something prepared.
Well, he did say “a few words”, but somehow I guessed he really meant more than a few. And if I managed to say anything of coherence … anything that was pleasing and a blessing to that congregation … it was the Holy Spirit that gave those words to me … and nothing I can or should take credit for.
But what I learned about honor on that Sunday has helped me better understand what Jesus was trying to say to the Pharisees in that house. You see, it’s easy to misunderstand … it’s easy to hear what Christ is saying and think to ourselves: Jesus is giving us advice on how we can get the honor we think we so richly deserve. So, we look at this passage under the pretext of What’s in it for me? How can I be honored? How can I be the one who is blessed? We look at it through the false lens of the prosperity gospel of modern society and not the gospel of Jesus Christ. What Christ is trying to teach 21st Century Christianity right along with the Pharisees – and what Rev. Moon taught me that Sunday – is if you want to be honored, you have to be a servant … if you want to be blessed you start by being a blessing to others.
For what we in modern America hold in places of high honor are not what God holds in places of honor. What we hold as great and mighty is not what God thinks of as great … is not what God thinks of as mighty. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord.
On the night that she learned she bore the son of God, Jesus’ mother Mary, a poor single woman sang: 52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
So, Jesus goes on to tell the Pharisees and us this morning:
“When you give a luncheon or a
dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in
case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a
banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed,
because they cannot repay you….
I wonder what that does to the gospel of What’s in It for Me? I wonder what that does to our society’s concept of honor and shame? I wonder what that does to our drive and ambition in the world of business? I wonder what that does to our always wanting to get a blessing but never to be a blessing?
Now there’s nothing wrong with drive and ambition in the world of business. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to climb the ladder of success … to build your own financial empire. If that is your calling in life, then blessings be upon you. But in your rise to the top, remember those whose labor helped to create that wealth you enjoy … to whom you owe more than just an hourly wage and a Christmas bonus. You owe them your very livelihood … without them, you wouldn’t be where you are today. None of us would … you can’t do it all on our own … you can’t “build it by yourself” … it takes people working together … it takes community. If you want honor … if you want dignity … then give a little honor and dignity and recognition to others.
Better yet, Jesus says, give a little honor and dignity to those who can never return the favor … who can never give you the honor and dignity you can show to them.
Friends, isn’t that, exactly, what our Lord and Savior has done for us?
Look at this Table we have been invited to! It cost our Lord plenty. It cost his body broken on the cross. It cost his blood poured onto the ground. We can never do for him what he has done for us. Yet he invites us when there is absolutely nothing in it for him!
So when you come to this Table, you come as one who has been raised from the lowliest place on this earth and accorded a place of honor … you sit next to a risen Lord who is the king of this world … and you sit next to every human being who has been a part of the church of Jesus Christ … those who are still alive and those who have passed on … people of every race and nationality. This Table reminds me of the words Dr. King spoke 50 years ago in front of the Lincoln Memorial when he shared with us his dream … “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the Table of Brotherhood” … and it was this very Table, set before us this morning, that he was talking about. And when share the bread and we drink from the cup we proclaim that Christ’s kingdom is here and now … the dream is alive and lives own. This is our faith … this is our hope … this is the source of our strength.
In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Posted in Book Review on July 26, 2013
by David Brin
(Tor Books, 2012)
Reviewed by Michael Woods
Usually, when I rate a book only three stars, it means I just barely managed to enjoy it. This book actually gets 2.9 stars, which means it has some redeeming qualities, but overall it just seems to miss the mark for me.
What is good and that I enjoyed includes some very interesting characters, a well developed not-too-far distant future society envisioned by the author, and an intriguing mystery that at least initially captures the reader’s interest. The pace has a tendency to start out slow as Brin introduces you to multiple characters essential to the story and allows the reader to become familiar with the near-future setting. He even managed to keep me interested with all these up until the middle of the story.
But Brin has an unfortunate tendency to leave out a lot of what would be interesting plot details. What happens to several of the characters is not something we witness directly through the narration but we learn about only after the fact – sometimes through other characters – and what we learn is something we wish Brin would have taken the time to describe to us as it was happening. This after-the-fact method of storytelling leaves the reader feeling disappointed as if they just missed out on something big.
Another problem I have with the novel is, although it is peopled by several very interesting characters, Brin never utilizes them to their fullest potential. A good example of this would be Ping Xiang Bin and his wife Mei Ling, the Chinese “shoresteaders” living in the remains of a city sunken by rising ocean levels. They find themselves caught up in world changing events, are separated from each other, and have their own separate adventures. However, Brin never reunites the two of them in front of the reader’s eyes, although we learn later this must surely have happened. The two of them drop inexplicably out of the story and, again, we feel like we’ve missed out on something.
But the biggest disappointment of them all is the aliens. If you’ve come to enjoy Brin, as I have, mainly through his Uplift series of novels, what you have come to expect is a well developed alien society, full of very vivid depictions of the aliens and their various cultures. Expect none of that in this work – it’s not even clear what the aliens even look like in this novel!
In the end, the reader finishes the novel – not because of any sympathy for its characters or anticipation about what happens next – but just to get it over with. Brin seems to be far more interested in developing abstract concepts better left to a work of nonfiction than to the kind of concrete details that bring a story alive.
Posted in Essays on June 26, 2013
Paula Deen, Chris Rock, and The “N-word”
Michael W. Woods
June 26, 2013
By now, much has been said and written about Paula Deen’s poor choice of vocabulary in discussing the thorny issue of race relations in the US. Most, if not everyone, have taken sides; either, in the words of one on-line friend, “joining in the pile-on,” or attempting to excuse what people of common decency would deem inexcusable. Well known pundits, such as Bill Maher, have joined in the fray declaring the “n-word” (which Deen admitted to having used in her workplace setting in the past) to be just another word and, by implication, something people shouldn’t get too out-of-sorts about. Another southern chef, Michael Twitty, who happens to be African-American, has also weighed in on her use of the n-word. While he did not excuse her use, he did comment that for him the word had lost any power it may have once had. He then went on in his essay to use the n-word himself, spelling it out clearly and plainly, supposedly so that we, his readers, could see that it had no effect on him.
Has it? Are we now in an era where a hurtful racial epithet of the past no longer – or at least, should no longer – have any power to intimidate, humiliate, and oppress an entire race of people?
It seems to me this is the real public conversation taking place in the wake of Deen’s admission – not whether Deen or her supporters are racists. Of course they are – we all harbor prejudices and there is a little bit of racism in all of us, as Twitty himself observed. But even religious leaders are in disagreement over the question of the n-word’s current efficacy in our post-modern, multi-cultural society.
For the last couple of years, I have worked as a hospital chaplain in Atlanta, GA, and now currently in Columbus, OH. Prior to that I worked a few years as a solo pastor of a small rural congregation in Northeast Georgia. I recall a conversation between two of my chaplain colleagues about an incident that occurred at one of the many seminaries in and around the Atlanta area. A white minister addressed a gathering of students and faculty at the seminary. The make-up of the audience was racially mixed, with African-Americans comprising a significant percentage of those attending. During his address, the minister used the n-word causally several times. Many in the audience were shocked and offended, but the preacher continued on, claiming (as Maher and Twitty recently have) it’s just a word! My colleagues, both of whom are white and one whom was present in the audience, could not believe anyone in this day and age would be offended. After all, they reasoned, don’t Black entertainers like Chris Rock and Jay-Z use the n-word profusely?
First of all, it struck me as completely inappropriate for two white males to be deciding on their own what should and shouldn’t be acceptable or offensive for the Black community. That is obviously something the Black community should decide on their own – we whites don’t have a say in it, nor should we. And whatever African-Americans decide, we whites should respect that decision. The n-word no longer belongs to us – i.e., to the white community. In the past, we crafted the word, borrowing it from Portuguese and Spanish, and utilized it to impose intimidation, humiliation, and oppression on a race of people. But we lost any ownership and right to use we may have had over the word when Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement raised the conscience of the church, marched on Washington, and brought an end to legalized segregation. We lost those things, and rightfully so, because our legal right to intimidate and subjugate people based on race came to an end. For whites to re-assert any right to use of the n-word is to reassert the basis of our previous ownership of it – the right to oppress. That’s why it was wrong for Paula Deen to use the word so casually in her business, and why she needs to apologize for having used it. It’s also why Bill Maher has no authority to decide whether or not the word should remain hurtful to African-Americans.
Furthermore, it’s also why – even should the African-American community ultimately decide to reclaim the word in the same way that the LGBT community has reclaimed the “q-word” or women are currently reclaiming the “b-word,” as Twitty suggests – the n-word will never, ever belong again to the white race and we will never again have the right to its use without subjecting ourselves to charges of racism. Many (mostly whites) will proclaim this is not fair, but we have only ourselves to blame. This is the bed we made with the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow.
PS: Michael Twitty’s open letter to Paula Deen, which I referenced several times in this essay can be found at http://afroculinaria.com/2013/06/25/an-open-letter-to-paula-deen/
Posted in Sermons on June 23, 2013
June 23, 2013
I’ve always had a naturally very inquisitive mind. Whenever I discover something new, I always have to know what it is, what it’s used for and when do I get a chance to use it. When I was in school and one of my friends would bring something from home … a new toy, a new baseball glove, or anything like that … we would all gather around, full of questions … wanting to see it … wanting to touch it … wanting to take turns playing with it.
One of the earliest memories I have was when I was about five years old. I discovered a green colored, marking pencil somewhere in the house. I had never seen one before – I wanted to know what it was and what it was used for. So, I did what most five year olds would do – I went and asked my mom. Now, what I hadn’t figured out at this early stage of my life was that my mom had an occasional bent towards playful sarcasm whenever she was in the mood. And she just kind of casually and jokingly said to me: “Oh, it’s for marking on walls!”
Well, that kind of sarcasm went right over my head! I was at a stage where I took things literally. The next though that came to my mind as I looked at that pencil was: “Cool! I’m gonna have some fun with this!”
I don’t remember what I subsequently drew later that day when I was alone. Five years old is what I think of as the “cubist period” of my artistic career … I was fascinated by angles and different geometric shapes.
But the most important lesson I learned that day, after mom discovered what I had done, was about boundaries … what you can and can’t do … and how important they are. Boundaries, I learned, are good … they keep you from ruining things or hurting other people … they keep our society orderly and functioning properly … and their purpose is to keep you safe and out of trouble. Boundaries, surprisingly and somewhat paradoxically, give us freedom. Without certain restraints, we would become slaves. There are rules that we all have to follow … some of them unwritten like “you’re not supposed to draw on walls” … and for the most part, they have a good reason for being.
The two scripture readings this morning are about boundaries. But both of the authors, Paul and Luke, want us to understand that not all boundaries are good. There are times when boundaries hurt and don’t protect … times when they enslave and prohibit freedom.
Jesus begins the Gospel story by crossing a very literal boundary … the Sea of Galilee. He had been around the northern part of the lake, near Capernaum. There he healed a Centurion’s servant … he told the Parable of the Sower … and in the Gospel of Matthew he is said to have preached the Sermon on the Mount at that time.
But after he had done all of these things, he gets into a boat with his disciples and tells them, “Let’s go on to the other side” (let’s cross this boundary). And they set out from the very northern tip of the Lake and sail to the very southern tip, landing somewhere near the city of Gadara. Now the Sea of Galilee is considered to be a boundary … it separates the region of Galilee, over which King Herod had authority, from a region known as the Decapolis – a group of ten cities, founded by Alexander the Great during his conquests, and which were very different from Galilee in terms of culture, language and religion. The people of the Decapolis were not Jewish … they were Gentiles. They did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic, but probably spoke Greek, and they worshipped the Greek and Roman gods and maybe some other ancient tribal deities.
And the first thing that happens as Jesus sets out to cross cultural, political, and religious boundaries … is, well, he goes to sleep … he doesn’t seem too worried about what he’s about to do. Unlike a lot of people … unlike a lot of us, crossing these kinds of boundaries isn’t upsetting for Jesus. He’s at ease and comfortable with what’s about to happen. He’s so much at ease, as a matter of fact, that a storm comes up … the boat is tossed to and fro and water begins to wash in over the sides … and Jesus continues to lie in the back of the boat, just snoozing away. The disciples have to shake him awake.
I can only wish for that kind of peacefulness in the midst of a storm. And as I read this account in the Gospel, it makes me wonder: Do we, as the church, have that kind of calm assurance whenever we are on the cusp doing something so radically different from anything we’ve ever done before? Or, do we want to give in to the temptation to turn back and return to Galilee … to where we came from (which is probably what the disciples are thinking about in the middle of the lake and a storm) … do we want to go back to where we feel more safe and comfortable because we encounter some resistance or things get a little too stormy? Whenever we come up against cultural, political or religious boundaries, like the disciples, we are filled with fear.
The apostle Paul is concerned about some of these same boundaries. And he tells us in the reading from Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28). Paul is concerned here with artificial boundaries … boundaries that are a human creation … and that are erected, not only to separate one group of people from another, but to put one group of people over and above another: Jews above Gentiles … masters over slaves … men over women. Race, socioeconomic status, and gender. And Paul tells the church in Galatia – and it’s a good reminder for us today in the 21st Century even, that in the Kingdom of God these boundaries do not exist … and for the church, since it is supposed to be a representative of God’s heavenly kingdom here on earth, these boundaries should not exist for us either.
But do they? Do we let them? Martin Luther King Jr., made the remark many times throughout his ministry in several different speeches and sermons that the most segregated hour in America is the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning. Is not this one of the boundaries Paul was talking about? The 70’s and 80’s saw the growth of the “megachurch” movement – big box churches that attracted thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of members. One of the things the churches that were (and are) a part of this movement shared was the philosophy that, in order to grow, it was best for the members to be alike each other in some way … similar in terms of race, culture, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation … and the reason they gave for doing this was so that everyone in the congregation would be more comfortable. Is that what we want out of church? A place where we can be comfortable while the world we are called to minister to crumbles around us?
It would have been much more comfortable for Jesus to have remained in Capernaum, with his own people … people who were like him … but he got into the boat and he tells his disciples to come with him. Jesus finds a way to be comfortable – not safely within the bounds of cultural, economic or political segregation – but rather in challenging those boundaries.
And after they crossed that hazardous boundary … after they make it across the sea, more boundaries come into play. They meet a man who is forced out to the boundaries of his own society. He has no home, he has no clothes, he is kept chained and locked up, and a guard is posted over him day and night. He doesn’t seem to know his own identity, for when Jesus asks him his name, he says, “My name is Legion.”
Now, some might diagnose his condition a little differently today. Some people might say he suffered from a form of epilepsy … some might say he suffered from some form of mental illness … and some might even say he was, indeed, possessed by demons. But some might argue: “What’s the difference?”
One thing is for certain: He may have forgotten who he is, but we know him … we see him everyday. He’s the person we encounter on the street that we walk away from as far as we possibly can because they seem a little strange to us. He is the woman who shows up in the hospital emergency room with her children seeking medical attention, and everyone automatically assumes she’s illegal for no reason other than she is Hispanic. He is the African and/or Arab American who is racially profiled at every traffic stop, airport and department store in America. He is every man, woman and child we push to the margins of our own society, even here in the supposedly enlightened time of the 21st Century.
But he is also like the rest of us in one way. The demons that inhabit his mind and have robbed him of life have become such a part of him that he is no longer able to envision life without them. The ideological boundaries that keep him on the margins … that keep him bound and chained … that make him the victim of prejudice and abuse are what really possess him … they’re the real demons in this story.
And the people who keep him on the margins … who keep him under lock and key … who have no vision of their own community where he can somehow be a part of it … they’re as equally possessed as he ever was. They think this is natural … they think this is the way things should be.
So, Jesus does more than just a simple exorcism in this story. The real miracle that happens here … the real healing … is he gives the man back his identity … he gives him a place and a role in the community. Jesus tears down the walls and ideological boundaries that segregate him from his neighbors. And that’s scary for the people who had kept him locked up – they have to deal with him now … they can no longer ignore him. We are told the town’s people are filled with fear when they come out and find this man, fully clothed and in his right mind.
As well they should be, for the kingdom of God has broken on them … there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. The kingdom of God crosses all political, cultural, economic, and gender boundaries, annihilating walls of hierarchy and oppression.
If we are Christ’s followers, remember that Jesus commands us – not to remain safe within the bounds of Galilee – but to get in the boat with him. Crossing boundaries will be stormy … there will be demons waiting for us on the other side … but we bring with us a precious cargo … the good news of the kingdom … the good news we are called to bring to the poor, that proclaims the release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, that lets the oppressed go free, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19, citing Isaiah 61:1, 58:6, 61:2).
Posted in Sermons on April 7, 2013
Sunday, April 7, 2013
2nd Sunday of Easter
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Michael Woods
When I was in seminary, one of my fellow students told me a joke about Simon Peter and his fellow disciples. On Easter morning, before Jesus had appeared to them, the disciples were all hiding out in a house, deeply ashamed of what had happened the previous week and remembering how they all, one by one, had abandoned Jesus. Then suddenly Peter, who had been out, came running back into the room where they all were … he’s out of breath and all excited. “I have some good news and some bad news,” he tells his companions. “The good news is: Jesus is alive! He has risen from the dead and I have seen him with my own eyes, and he spoke to me. It is the most wonderful thing!” And the disciples are all like: “Peter that’s so marvelous! So what’s the bad news?” Peter’s face turned beet red, he said: “Well, the bad news is: he wants to talk to us all about last Friday!”
Good Friday, you recall, was not the most shinning moment for the apostles – they had been at their best. I can understand then, why they might be a little nervous in this morning’s scripture when Jesus suddenly and mysteriously appears inside the room with them, even though the door to the room and the house has been locked and secured. He appears amidst locked doors and locked minds that are not sufficient to keep out the implications and the repercussions of the miracle of Easter Sunday.
I say this because I think that this passage – which is in three parts – is about belief, belief in the resurrection of the body in particular, belief that Jesus – even though the disciples had seen him raise Lazarus from the dead just a few weeks earlier – has defeated death yet again, this time on a substantially deeper level. This time, a victory over death has been achieved that goes far beyond anything that may have been accomplished with the raising of Lazarus. That news is staggering to try and understand! It’s even a little bit frightening!
In the first part of this passage, Jesus enters the disciples’ hide out. He comes into a room where people are already afraid for their lives. And he comes to a group of people who have already received the witness of someone who has seen the risen Christ and has told them about it. And that person was Mary Magdalene, a woman, but the men in the crowd aren’t so sure they want to take her word for it. The good news of the resurrection has been delivered to them by a person who is one of the oppressed classes of people in the world. I think it is significant that when Jesus chose to reveal himself following his rising from the dead, he did not first appear before Peter or John or James. He did not first appear before any of the men who were in authority in that part of the world, such as Pilate or Herod. The Gospels all tell us that he appeared first to the women who were his followers, and all four Gospels are all in agreement that Mary Magdalene is was part of that group. In John’s Gospel, in fact, she is the only one to whom he appears initially and she is the first person Christ commands to tell everyone else the good news, making her the first evangelist. But no one is ready to believe her because she is just a woman.
There is a lot of resistance to the witness of the miracle of resurrection in the room where the disciples have gathered. They’re not Easter people yet. Because to be Easter people means you have to be willing to listen to the voices of people like Mary Magdalene, a woman. You have to be willing to hear what they have to say to you about God. To be Easter people you have to go beyond being willing to merely give equal weight to the voices of men and women, rich and poor, Whites and minorities, alike … it means you even have to go to the extent that you are willing to give a preferential ear to those who have suffered oppression, been victimized by violence, and who have had their voices silenced by the society we live in for decades, generations, centuries, even millennia.
It is every bit as hard to be a Easter person, in this day and age, as it was to be on that day, that first Easter morning. Maybe we don’t hide behind physical, locked doors like the disciples did. But we hide behind locked minds. Many hide behind a safer form of Christianity that is more socially acceptable – a form of Christianity that conforms to what authorities deem permissible. Some hide behind a tamer version of the gospel where the Sermon on the Mount is nothing more than a very beautiful speech – it may suggest some things that people ought to strive for – but has no real authority over how everyone should live their lives. Some hide behind a tamer version of God, who is only concerned about people’s spiritual lives and not about things like poverty or economic justice. Some people hide behind a tamer theology of Creation that sees the world and its natural resources as opportunities for plunder to create wealth for a few. But most disastrously, many hid behind a tamer version of Easter where there is no resurrection of the body, where there is no redemption of this the physical world. They hide their faith behind a safer belief that Jesus’ promise of eternal life means only that the human soul will live forever … that God’s promise of salvation does not extend to our physical bodies or even the planet we live on. So they look at the physical world … the environment, the air that we breathe, the water we drink, and the land upon which we live that gives us food and shelter … and they come to the erroneous conclusion that these things don’t matter, that God’s plan for salvation doesn’t include the physical world … redemption is only for the human soul. They do not even care for their own physical bodies.
But the Apostles’ Creed and Gospels of the New Testament give us a very different message. Our faith does not speak of a transcendence of the human soul from this plane of existence to another … our faith speaks of a belief in something called the resurrection of the body.
We cannot be Easter people without the hope and the promise of the resurrection of the body – because without the resurrection of the body, the tomb is not empty on Easter morning, its door is still sealed by a heavy stone. This morning’s passage does not tell us of a disembodied soul that stands before the disciples on Easter morning. It doesn’t talk about a ghost or a spirit. It talks about the resurrected body of Jesus Christ … the disciples can see the wounds in his hands and feet, the bloody gash in his side … wounds that had been fatal. It’s the body of Christ that says to them and to us: “Look at these! See how I died! See how I now live!” Jesus offers verifiable, tangible proof of the resurrection of the body – proof we can see, proof we can literally put our fingers into!
The good news that Christ brings to us on Easter morning is that God plans to redeem everything. Not just our souls, but our bodies too! Not just heaven, but Earth as well.
Imagine a resurrection of the physical body, if you will. Easter people are called to do this. At the very least, imagine the end of physical hurts and pains. Imagine an end to disease and sickness. Imagine our bodies in full health for eternity.
But don’t stop there. Imagine an end to hunger and disease … imagine an end to poverty, homelessness, warfare, and pollution. That’s what God’s plan of redemption calls for … that’s the good news Jesus is trying to bring to us on Easter morning. These are the implications and repercussions of resurrection.
In the book of Revelation, John the elder tells where all this is headed. He tells us of a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Out of heaven, the holy city, a new Jerusalem, descends, and he hears a load voice saying: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for these things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
And there is justice in this resurrected earth: there is no poverty, there is no hunger, warfare and violence are not tolerated.
The biblical witness at least is very clear about the implications and the repercussions of the resurrection of the body. Anything else is a tame gospel that has been domesticated to conform to the value system of this fallen world.
Jesus comes to his disciples through physically locked doors and minds. He shows his disciples his hands and his side. They could touch him. And he gives them a charge: “As the Father sent me, so I send you. To free the rest of humankind from sinfulness, from its fallenness.” And he gives them the Holy Spirit to do this, the Spirit which comes from his own breath, the Spirit which is his own resurrected life. If we are willing to be Easter people, then Christ breathes this Spirit into us and gives us this charge.
I think Thomas, in the second part of this passage, is like a lot of us today. He wasn’t there on Easter Sunday. He didn’t get a chance to see Jesus walk through a locked door. He didn’t get to see the wounds in Christ’s body. He’s asked by the other disciples to take their word for this incredible story.
And we are being asked to believe all this and to become Easter people on the basis of the oral testimony of some witnesses who lived long ago … an oral testimony that began with Mary Magdalene, a woman.
Are we like Thomas? Do we really want to see the wounds? Do we want to be able to see and touch the risen body of Christ and know that it’s something real? Doesn’t the whole world want that? Doesn’t the whole world need that?
Friends, is not the church the body of Christ? Is not this congregation the closest some people will ever be able to come and witness the risen Savior … to know that he is real? What wounds do we offer the world as proof of our love for them … and how we are willing to suffer on their behalf?
Posted in Sermons on March 24, 2013
Sunday, March 24, 2013
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
Rev. Michael Woods
The last Sunday of Lent, the Sunday before Easter, poses a dilemma that – I think – only preachers seem to be aware of: do we opt for Palm Sunday and talk about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – palm branches, crowds shouting “Hosanna to the King! Hail Son of David!” – or do we recognize that the last Sunday of Lent is also Passion Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week … a week which ends with Jesus’ lifeless body growing cold inside a tomb? Which scripture passage do we go for? The one that is full of celebration and almost completely assures the minister that every congregant will leave the service feeling positive and energized? Or do we go with the trial before Pilate, Jesus being mocked before Herod, the crowd choosing to release Barabbas instead of Christ, Jesus’ journey through the streets of Jerusalem, Simon the Cyrene being forced to carry the cross for Christ because Jesus is so beaten he is unable to take it a step further, and the bloody details of his execution and last gasp of breath where he says “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”? And this year, the reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, which comes from Luke, ends with Jesus friends standing at a distance watching these things unfold, afraid to be anywhere near.
Most ministers, if they are honest with you, would admit they would choose the easier option – they go for Palm Sunday – palm branches waving in the sanctuary … for churches that have large choirs there’s this huge procession going in through the front door … they get the little kids involved … sometimes the minister dips the palm branches in the baptismal font and walks down the aisle sprinkling water on everyone – it’s all such a festive occasion! I don’t mind confessing to you that – more often than not – Palm Sunday has been my option, as well! You end worship on Sunday morning on a high note, full of glory! Then … the next Sunday is Easter Sunday … resurrection … Easter Eggs … and you start the celebration all over again! You go from glory to glory.
But … there’s something missing.
And what’s missing is Good Friday. And I think that missing element has profound theological repercussions for our individual lives and the life of our society.
We forget what scorn and ridicule the early members of the church suffered because they claimed to believe in a man who was crucified on a cross … that he was no ordinary man … that he was the messiah … and that he was even the Son of God, the very incarnation of God here on Earth. The apostle Paul remarks on this in his First letter to the church in Corinth when he says: “The Jews want to see signs and the Gentiles demand wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, and this is a stumbling block to the Jews and just plain foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22-23).
Crucifixion was the worst form of execution that the Roman Empire could come up with. They didn’t invent it – it was practiced long before them by the Persians, the Assyrians, and even Alexander the Great was said to have crucified thousands. It was a form of execution that the Romans reserved for the lowest class of criminal: for slaves who had murdered their masters, for revolutionaries. It was thought of in Roman society as “slave’s punishment,” and was forbidden to be used on free Roman citizens. To be crucified meant you were an outcast … that you were the lowest of the low. It was standard operating procedure for soldiers to heap as much scorn and ridicule as they could upon the person to be executed in order to humiliate them as much as possible.
What happened on Good Friday was that the man called Jesus of Nazareth … a man who had a small group of close followers but who was growing more and more popular throughout the region … a man who claimed to be the long awaited Messiah, who would free Israel from its enemies … a man who even claimed to be the son of God was arrested, tried and condemned to death, tortured by Pilate’s soldiers and then led outside the gates of the city and crucified until he died. And a large crowd gathered to watch all of it. They saw him beaten and humiliated. They watched him die. And most everyone who gathered on that day probably thought to themselves: “Boy, I wouldn’t want to be one of his followers! Can you imagine the shame and humiliation they must be going through right now?”
What happened on the cross on Good Friday should have been a catastrophe for the early church. It almost was. Immediately following Jesus’ death, the disciples go into hiding – they lock themselves behind closed doors and keep out of the public eye. But then, on Easter Sunday all of that changes, they learn that the impossible has happened – Jesus has risen from the dead! And they are ecstatic! They want to tell everyone! But they know in order to do that they have to tell the whole story. They cant tell about Palm Sunday and then go straight from that into Easter without telling everyone the shameful, scandalous events that occurred in between. We can’t talk about the glory of Palm Sunday without mentioning where it is Jesus is going and what he has to suffer in order to get there.
But our society today is a little too scandalized by the cross. And I think that’s because what the cross means … is not winning … but loosing. We just simply don’t like to loose. I think a lot of the impasse we have in Washington these days is because nobody wants to look like a loser. Not too long ago, a well known pastor of a large Megachurch expressed reservations about worshipping a kind of Jesus that he thought was too soft and weak-kneed, the kind of Jesus who allows himself to be lead to the cross. He said he preferred a Jesus who was “a prizefighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship…not a guy I can beat up.”
We want our football teams to be winners, and we want them to win national championships every year – and when they don’t and when we loose to our most hated rivals, we loose face, and we feel shame. Some people take this to the extreme of letting their hearts be full of hate and anger when they loose. (But we don’t have that problem here in Ohio, do we!)
In the 1980’s and the 1990’s there were a lot of corporate rivalries: Coke vs. Pepsi … McDonald’s vs. Burger King … Ford vs. Chevy! But one of the biggest rivalries during that time was between two types of computer users: those who were loyal to the Apple MacIntosh vs. those who were PC users (and PCs were powered by the Windows operating system, so this translated into a corporate rivalry between the Apple Computer Co. and another company called Microsoft). Then one day in 1997, while Apple was struggling as a company, Steve Jobs who was one of the founders of that company said something that made a lot of loyal MacIntosh users very mad. He said: “If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things here. We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose.” And a lot of people got very mad at him when he said that. There were audible “boos” that could be heard in the auditorium where he was giving that speech at the time. It was as if he had just given up and declared Microsoft the winner. But he was right … and Apple stopped focusing on hoping and praying that Microsoft would have a spate of bad luck, and instead focused on doing better quality work. And today Apple is the largest publicly traded corporation in the world.
If we want to move forward, we need to let go of this notion that in order for us to win somebody else has to loose.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, his disciples were filled with hope he would be the one to defeat Israel’s enemies … that he would not only vanquish the Roman Empire (something no one else in the world had been able to do up until that point) but that he would also humiliate them … that there would be some serious payback. They wanted the kind of Christ that megachurch pastor wants – somebody that will beat somebody else up and not get beaten up himself. But in order to get to Easter Sunday, they had to let go of something. They had to let go of Palm Sunday … and the procession into Jerusalem … and the hope that somebody else was going to loose. And they had to accept Good Friday and the scandal of the cross.
They had to let go of hoping the Romans would loose and accept Gentiles into their midst. They had to let go of hating Samaritans and see them as brothers and sisters in Christ. They had to let go of racial and sexual stereotypes and accept the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch into the church and as an evangelist of the gospel. They had to let some things die so they could be reborn into a new world and a new life.
We ignore Good Friday at our own peril. Christ came into this world, not for the glory of Palm Sunday so he could usher in another theocracy. He came for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
What things do we need to let go of … that we need to die to … so we can live this new life Christ promises us?
Posted in Sermons on March 10, 2013
Rev. Michael Woods
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2013
4th Sunday in Lent
One of my favorite television shows is a little half hour sit-com called The Middle, which comes on Wednesday nights on ABC. It involves the middle-class family of Frankie and Michael Heck and their three children who live in the state of Indiana (the Mid-West). The middle-child is named Sue; and when the series first began airing a few years ago she was in middle school, although she’s gotten a little bit older now. Sue has a problem gaining recognition for who she is in the show. Her teachers never remember her name, she is snubbed by her fellow students, and one year her picture was left out of the yearbook even though she had her pictured taken three times!
Sue’s life is pretty typical for most middle school girls in that she spends most of her waking moments strategizing different plots and schemes to climb up the middle school social ladder. And nowhere is the social stratification of middle school more evident than in the cafeteria, where all the students congregate into different groups based on their degree of popularity. There are the A-tables, the B-tables, the C-tables, the D-tables and the F-tables. Sue (as you would expect) is right in the middle – she is definitely a C-table person, … but she aspires to be a B-table!
In one episode Sue had won a contest or had gained some sort of notoriety for something she had done, and she hoped that would translate into increased popularity for her so she could finally make her move to one of the B-tables. But, at the very next lunch period, she encountered a problem. As she and her friend got their lunch trays, they quickly began to scan the all the B-tables, all excited about getting to sit with a higher level group of students. But they couldn’t find any place to sit down! All of the chairs at the B-tables were taken! And they dared not go back to the C-table; because if they went back to the C-table, they were going to get stuck there! They would miss the chance to move up a rung. So, she and her friend ended up eating their entire lunch standing up in the middle of the cafeteria!
I’m sure you remember what going to school and trying to fit in with the right group, and all that, was like for you when you went to school. If you’re like me, you’d probably like to forget about it! You were judged by your peers according to who you hung out with … who you sat with in class … and who you ate with. And you probably remember the different social gradations, too. A-tables … B-tables … all the way down to F. And you probably remember where it was you fit in on that ladder.
Here’s a question to think about: If Jesus were to have come to the cafeteria of your school, what table do you think he would sit down to eat at? Would he sit at the table with all the jocks and cheerleaders … next to the president of the Beta Club?
The scriptures actually give us something of an answer to that question. And it’s not just this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke … we see an answer to this question spread throughout all of the Gospels. Jesus seems to have a reputation of associating the kind of people that the “good” people of society want to have nothing to do with. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke (7:36-50), Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee and they are sharing a meal together. We gather that this Pharisee was one of the fine, upstanding citizens of the community. But in the middle of their meal, a woman enters the home – a woman who is described as a notorious sinner – and she stands immediately behind Jesus and begins weeping. And with her tears she begins to wash his feet and dries them with her hair … kissing them and anointing them with oil. And the Pharisee is scandalized! And he tells Jesus, “If you knew who this woman was, you wouldn’t be letting her do this.”
This story is recorded in each of the four Gospels – each with a slightly different version and sometimes with different characters. In John, it’s Mary of Bethany who does the anointing, but here it’s an unnamed woman.
In other parts of the Gospels, Jesus eats at the houses of tax collectors, Matthew and Zaccheus (and tax collectors, as you know were one type of outcasts) … in another episode Jesus is at the house of someone called, Simon the Leper (lepers were all outcasts) … and who can forget the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman considered racially impure by the Jews and who had unorthodox views on the practice of religion, and who had been married five different times and currently living with a man who was not her husband and Jesus asks her for a drink of water.
Jesus likes to disturb artificial social boundaries in all four of the Gospels. I say “artificial,” meaning these are social boundaries created by human beings and not by God … boundaries that divide one group of people from another and set us up in hierarchical relationships to one another, creating artificial categories of one group better than another, one group having more privileges, better opportunities. Human beings have done this throughout our history. We divide people along the lines of race, income, education, language, familial lineage, political affiliation.
We’re really not very different from wolves in that respect. Zoologists tell has that wolves have their own social hierarchy. At the top are the alpha wolves – usually one male and one female, who are the strongest physically and have the strongest personalities, and they enjoy special privileges. They get to eat first ahead of the rest of the pack. They’re the only two in the pack that mate and produce offspring, and all the other wolves have to take care of their pups. After the alpha wolves are the betas and the gammas … all the way down to the very last wolf on the scale – the omega wolf. And the poor omega wolf is lucky to have anything to eat at all after the rest of the pack has finished and had their fill, and it’s always being nipped at and driven off by the other wolves. So, you see, wolves have A-tables, B-tables, … and so on just like we do.
Coming from the South, I remember a time when I was young and the schools were divided along racial lines. I was lucky enough to have been born into the group that the State of Alabama decided should be the alpha group and have the better schools, the better education, the better cafeterias and football fields. But all that changed one day in 1970 when the Supreme Court ordered the state to integrate the schools. And the first day of the next school year, I went to a different school … one that previously had only been for African American students. So technically, we were integrated – whites and Blacks went to the same school and shared the same classrooms with one another. But in reality – the boundaries that separated the races were still there – they were just invisible. We sat in class grouped along racial lines … we congregated at recess along racial lines … and at lunch period, we sat at different tables separated by racial barriers. It took years for us to get over the invisible social constraints that were always feeding us the lie the State had been telling us for ages: that it was wrong and sinful for the races to mix. I don’t think the South has entirely gotten over all that.
But Jesus likes to break down these artificial social barriers because he knows they feed us a lie – they feed us the lie that one group of people is better than another and always will be and there’s nothing that can be done to change that. He does this by defying those social constraints and consorting with the “wrong” people that the “good” people want nothing to do with. He eats with tax collectors, lepers, sinners and prostitutes. If Jesus were to come here today, what group of people would he consort with in order to challenge the artificial social barriers we have constructed in our society? Whose table would he eat at?
Let me answer that question in this way: What group of people do you most despise, look down upon, think are not as “good” as you are because they are the worst kind of sinner you can possibly imagine – and that’s probably the first table Jesus would go to. Jesus would walk right past a lot of us – the “good” people of this society – and then be completely unconcerned by how scandalized we are by the grace he has chosen to show and to give.
And when Jesus finally at some point does come by our table to sit with us, I’m sure the first thing he will do is address our concerns about his scandalous grace. And he would probably do so in the same way he does in this morning’s scripture and the way he does in most other instances throughout the Gospels when this topic comes up: he tells us some parables.
Now, the first two parables (The Parable of the Lost Sheep and The Parable of the Lost Coin) are very similar to one another: something is lost … the person who looses it goes to great lengths to try and find it, even defying social conventions to do so … and when it is finally found, there is great rejoicing and celebration by the person and their friends and neighbors. But then Jesus tells a third parable … and this parable starts out exactly like the other two, but then Jesus adds a little twist to the ending: something was lost and then was found, … but not everyone is rejoicing.
Jesus tells us that when the prodigal son was returning, and he was still far off, the father sees him in the distance, and he does something quite uncommon for parents of that time – he runs out to meet his son. He runs out to welcome the son who, earlier in the story, had told him essentially that he wished the father were already dead … that he couldn’t wait for the father to die so he could have his inheritance … he wanted it now. The father runs out to welcome this son who had brought shame and disgrace upon the family, who had dishonored the father violating one of the Ten Commandments, and who according to the Law of Moses the father could demand be taken outside the gates of the city and stoned to death. And he welcomes this son – not as a servant, but as his beloved son who was lost and now is found. This son is given a robe, brand new sandals, … a fatted calf is slain, and the father throws a big barbeque for the whole neighborhood.
So far this sounds just like the other two parables before it. But then Jesus throws in that little unexpected twist at the end of the story, and the father’s scandalous grace doesn’t stop there … it keeps on giving. When he learns his older son is outside, sulking and refusing to take part in the celebration, the father leaves the party (it is a breach of etiquette for a host to abandon his party) and just as he reached out to the prodigal, he reaches out to the older son and reminds him: “You are always with me, and all I have is yours. But let us celebrate, because your brother was lost but now he has been found. Don’t you be lost to me, as well, by refusing to join in this celebration.”
And then Jesus does something he doesn’t often do in his parables – he doesn’t really give us an ending … we never know how the older son responds to the father’s invitation. And I think the reason Jesus does that is because he wants to leave it up to us to fill in the ending. Do we accept his invitation to us to come sit with him at the F-table … to not be afraid to be among the misfits … to not be afraid of what someone else might say about us … maybe to even be misfits ourselves?
Posted in Sermons on February 25, 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!
Posted in Book Review on February 22, 2013
(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.