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?
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.
The Many Different Ways of Being One
Rev. Mike Woods
January 27, 2013
3rd Sunday of Epiphany
1 Corinthians 12: 12-31
One of the things a lot of preachers dread is when the lectionary readings for Sunday turn to the Book of Nehemiah. There is probably not a book in either the Old or New Testament with more difficult names for the English tongue to pronounce!
But the scene that this morning’s scripture sets for us is awesome and inspiring, to say the least. The people have returned from exile in Babylon after being granted their freedom by the Persians … Jerusalem has been rebuilt … a new temple has been built upon the ruins of the old one… and the priest, Ezra, has called all of the people together for a day of worship and rededication to the covenant that was established with Moses and the Israelites nine hundred years earlier. Much of the ceremony consists of Ezra reading from all five Books of the Law – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy … it probably took over six hours for him to get through the entire worship service.
Don’t worry, my sermon today be considerably shorter. I wouldn’t do that to you. Besides, I don’t think I have the energy for that, anyway. Now, most of us in the US would probably cringe at the idea of a worship service lasting more than an hour or for as long as two hours. But I understand that in other places in the Christian world, that wouldn’t be unusual, at all. In the Presbyterian churches in South Africa, for example, Sunday worship is an all day affair. There’s a lot of singing, a lot of praying, a lot of dancing and hand clapping … more than one minister may get up to preach. World Christianity is a diverse congregation that encompasses many different cultures, many different languages and traditions and styles. There is no one size fits all when it comes to the church of Jesus Christ.
But besides the probable length of the service, one of the things I notice about this passage is where the people gather for the ceremony: at the gate of the city of Jerusalem called the Water Gate. This was a special place because the square in front of the gate was a place that was not off limits to anyone: rich or poor, male or female, young or old, Jew or gentile – you could be there. Even lepers and other people considered ritually unclean were allowed to be present in the square in front of the Water Gate. And the scripture lets us know that, indeed, all kinds of different people were there. The previous chapter gives us a list of all of them … all 42,360 of them (7:66). Among them are some people of uncertain ancestry – people who claim to be Jewish but can’t produce the proper documentation to prove they are who they say they are – and they are allowed, at least, some limited participation (7:61-65). All who have gathered are united as one people and told they should act as one people … and this includes sharing the food and drink they had brought to feed themselves at the ceremony with those who brought nothing with them, because that is how a united people behave – they look after and take care of one another, they don’t leave one another to suffer.
The inclusivity we see in this passage is remarkable, I think. The Book of Nehemiah is not a book of the Bible known for its inclusivity. It’s a book that causes a lot of modern day readers to cringe whenever they come across it, and gives us pastors another reason to dread having to preach from it, in addition to it lists of difficult names. It’s a book that has been described as xenophobic and racist – it forbids interracial marriage, certain ethnic groups are prohibited from entering Jerusalem at certain hours, and laws requiring the segregation of all non-Jews are enacted. And all throughout, the governor Nehemiah claims to be doing God’s work.
So the little bit of inclusivity we see in this short passage where Ezra leads the people together in worship, as slight as it may be and as grudgingly as it may be given, stands out! Social outcasts are present … the undocumented are permitted a limited form of amnesty … men, women and children barely old enough to understand what is being said are allowed to take part.
It’s worth noting that most of the Old Testament, as a whole, gives a little different message about foreigners – in particular, the books of Jonah and Ruth depict Gentiles in a much more favorable light. Even the Torah, the five books that Ezra reads from at the Water Gate, contains the commandment: You shall also love the stranger who lives among you, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt (Deut. 10:10). This commandment is repeated several times throughout the Torah. What the Old Testament reveals to us is a community of faith struggling with the divine call to inclusivity. Who do we let in? Who do we fellowship with? Who is our neighbor, as Jesus will ask four hundred years later? The people of God don’t always get the answers to those questions correct, but, as Martin Luther King once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Paul is dealing with another community of faith also struggling with its own call to inclusiveness, but I think he’s facing a little different problem. The church at Corinth seems to already be a very diverse church. The city of Corinth in Paul’s time can be described as a major commercial metropolitan city. People from all over the Roman Empire came to do business there … people of all nationalities, cultures and languages. It was a very diverse city and the make up of the church that Paul helped to plant reflected this.
But it’s also a church that was so diverse it had lost any sense of unity. From reading his letters to the church we can get an idea of what some of these divisions were. There seems to be some division along class lines: the rich are bringing food for themselves and not sharing any with the poor workers who arrive late to the gatherings after work, and Paul has to remind them, like Ezra does in the Old Testament passage, that this is not how a people united are to behave or treat one another. And while the congregation seems to experience some tension over issues of race, culture, and nationality, which is what we might expect in so multicultural a society, the greatest division among the people seems to be something that most of us would not have expected – it has to do with Spiritual Gifts.
We talked about some of those last week, and you may recall Paul told them there were many different gifts – prophecy, healing, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, and out of these, three that will last forever: Faith, hope, and love – the greatest of which is love. But, although there are many different spiritual gifts, there is only one Spirit from which they all come.
Today, Paul wants to take this argument to its logical conclusion: just as there are many different gifts, but one Spirit that grants them, so there are many different members of a church – unique individuals, distinct personalities, separate perspectives on the world live in – but there is one church body, the body of Christ. For in the one Spirit, Paul says, we were all baptized into one body – Jews, Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. “One Bread, One Body, One Lord of All,” as a hymn frequently sung during communion in many churches says.
I mentioned the Presbyterian Church in South Africa, a little earlier. Its actual name is the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa. It has a very interesting history … it wasn’t always united or even tried to be united. When Presbyterian missionaries first arrived in South Africa in 1897, they – like Nehemiah and the church in Corinth – struggled with the divine call to inclusiveness. Separate denominations were founded: one for white settlers, another for Blacks. They worshipped separately, they took communion separately – they lived in a body of Christ that was divided against itself, where the hand and the foot said to one another, “I have no need of you.” This is how things were in the entire nation of South Africa under the system of government that came to be known as apartheid. But even after the fall of apartheid, it was not until 1999 (just a little over twelve years ago) that the two denominations, divided along racial lines, would begin the work of reconciliation and become as one, sisters and brothers in Christ. They decided to call themselves the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa because they recognize that the work of achieving unity in the midst of their diversity is always work in progress … it’s not something you can do overnight by voting on a resolution or issuing a proclamation. And although they may still have a long way to go – for the most part it’s still separate churches for whites and Blacks, much as it is in the US – whites and Blacks share leadership in the denomination, they share resources, they are in the process of becoming one.
One of the ways our own denomination has sought to give support to our brothers and sisters there is through sister-church fellowships which allow us to get to know our brothers and sisters there and to support them in their ministry. The church my wife and I were members of in Pensacola formed a sister church relationship with a small church in the township of Gugulethu. Another way we are seeking to enter into solidarity with their struggle to respond to the divine call is by considering adoption of the Belhar Confession into our Book of Confessions. Although this confession was written by another denomination, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa, it speaks directly to the issues of apartheid and inclusivity. In part it states:
that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ …
that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered…
that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God;
It’s a messy kind of Spirituality, Paul invites the church in Corinth (and us, too, for that matter) to take part in. He doesn’t want us to become so unified that we become uniform. We don’t have to give up the things that make us different from one another – culture, race, our own unique if somewhat eccentric perspective on the world. God gave us those things for a reason, they all have a place somewhere in the body of Christ. And if anyone is excluded, we are all the lesser for it.
I would go so far as to say the same is true for our nation, as well. We live in one of the most diverse countries of the entire world, and it grows more diverse everyday. I think more of us are starting to learn to appreciate that and welcome it as the gift from God it’s meant to be. In his inaugural day poem, One Today, the poet Richard Blanco offers us a vision of the future God is calling us to. I read his ending verse to you in closing: (The text of Blanco’s poem can be found at: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/today-richard-blanco-poem-read-barack-obama-inauguration/story?id=18274653)