only a poet

Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah 11:1-10

11 A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
    a branch will sprout[a] from his roots.
The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
    a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    a spirit of planning and strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
    nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
    and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent[b] with the rod of his mouth;
    by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
    and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed[c] together,
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
    Their young will lie down together,
    and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
    toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
    The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
    just as the water covers the sea.

10 On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.

 

From Walter Bruegemann’s Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent,

In poetry we can do things not permitted by logic or reason. Poetry will open the world beyond reason. Poetry will give access to contradictions and tensions that logic must deny. Poetry will not only remember but also propose and conjure and wonder and imagine and foretell.

So Jews, in their covenantal fidelity, did poems. Miriam did poetry when they crossed out of Egyptian slavery. Deborah did poetry when it dawned on them that the Canaanites were not so formidable. Hannah did poetry when little Samuel was born. Eventually Mary did poetry when she found out that she was pregnant. All these mothers in Israel celebrated the impossible that was right before their eyes, even though they could explain none of it. They did poetry while the hard men were still parsing logic, writing memos to each other, and drafting briefs.

I propose that Advent is a time of struggle between the poem that opens the future that God will work and the memo that keeps control. Advent is a time for relinquishing some of the control in order to receive the impossible from God. 

 

There’s something about Advent. The impossibility of it. There’s something about the poetry of the prophets. The imagery. The language. The vision.
There’s something about the wildness.
The persistence of the prophets in proclaiming that a new thing is surely coming.
Advent is the season for these prophets to tell us that something is going to grow out of the thing that looks dead.
There will be a shoot from a stump.

A spirit of wisdom and understanding will reign. Can you imagine that?
A spirit of wisdom and understanding. . .  on facebook. In Congress.
Spirit and understanding everywhere from city halls to sanctuaries and all places in between.
People in need and people who are suffering will receive what is right and just.
The wolf will live with the lamb.
A nursing child will reach into the serpent’s den and nobody will get hurt.
Poison will be gone from the world.
No one will harm or destroy.
Violence will be eradicated.

Only a poet can give us a vision like this. 

And even though this is Bible, poetry that made it into our most sacred of texts, most of us. . . the vast majority of us. . .  will write this off.
Most of us will hear it as impossible and keep on moving. 

Only a poet can give us a vision like this.
Perhaps, this Advent, what we need more than anything else is more poets.

I know. It’s hard to believe. Difficult to know what to do with a vision like this.
The only world we know is one where wolves devour lambs.
Calves and lions do not feed together in the current reality.
It’s hard to lay aside logic and reason, even for a few moments, to entertain poetry.
To ponder the impossible. 

I like how Walter Brueggemann says it, that, “Advent is a time of struggle between the poem that opens the future that God will work and the memo that keeps control. Advent is a time for relinquishing some of the control in order to receive the impossible from God.”

I asked a question at a gathering with some church folks last week.
The question was this, if you knew money were no issue and you knew that you couldn’t possibly fail, what would you want to do?
It’s fun to answer that for our lives or our families, but I was wanting us to respond from a church context.

If money were no issue and you knew you could not possibly fail, what would you want the church to do?

It was an interesting exercise. The conversation didn’t flow easily. We eventually got to a place of talking about that question and sharing ideas. But the question was met with hesitancy, even suspicion at first. 

I was reflecting on that experience later. It compelled me to ask the question-
why is it so hard for the church to dream?

The God that we worship, the God of Scripture, the God of the incarnation of Jesus, the God whose people we are, makes certain promises to us.
A shoot will come from a stump.
The thing that looks dead still has roots, and a branch will sprout.
Wisdom and understanding will reign one day.
People who suffer will be judged equitably.
The violent won’t prosper.
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the young goat.
A little child will be our leader.
Lions will eat straw.
Toddlers will be free to play with serpents.
No one will harm or destroy.

The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, just as the water covers the sea.

The God in whom we put our trust is capable of this and more. 

Why is it so hard for us to dream?

Admittedly, it is easy for hope and imagination to be stifled in our time. One doesn’t have to go far to find discouragement and division these days.
The proclamation that something new is on the horizon sounds a little too good to be true. 

Maybe, this season can serve as the recalibration that it is intended to be.
Perhaps, our call is to get a little lost in the wilderness with poets and prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist.
Perhaps, the remedy to the obstacle of dreaming is simply a matter of focus and attention.

Because if the object of our attention, devotion, and meditation is the God of Isaiah, the God who can bring peace, the God who can cause shoots to come up from stumps,
then, surely,
we will remember how to dream again.

“Advent is a time of struggle between the poem that opens the future that God will work and the memo that keeps control. Advent is a time for relinquishing some of the control in order to receive the impossible from God.”

Typically, I read a number of commentaries in my sermon preparation during the week. I regularly turn to a variety of Biblical, historical, theological scholars and preachers.

It’s funny.
Over the last few days,
I just read poetry. 

Faded Glory and Future Promise

Haggai 1:15b-2:9

Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory?
Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory?

This is the first question that the prophet Haggai poses. He’s speaking to Judah’s governor, Zerubbbabel, to the Chief High Priest, Joshua, and “to the rest of the people.” 

Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory?

He poses the question and also delivers God’s promise to politician, priest, and people. (Don’t skip over that detail. The governor is present alongside the priest.)
Politician, priest, and people.

I’d be real impressed if you knew what was going on in this short little prophetic book (or if you had even heard of it!). The Spirit kept pointing me to this passage, but it required a whole lot of extra homework because I sure as heck didn’t know what was going on with Haggai. 

Here’s what I learned: Haggai is situated in the time frame after the exiles had returned from Babylon. When Persia rose to power in the ancient Near East Jews were permitted to return to their homeland. Now, the Babylonians had destroyed the Temple and deported the people. That’s what exile was. It was destructive, was dislocating, and it was a stripping of the people’s identity. So when they get to go home, the task before them was the rebuilding of everything: homes, shops, community, place of worship.

They would have come home to rubble, ruins, and weeds.
Haggai prophesies in a time after the rebuilding of the Temple had begun.

[Sidenote: preaching is what prophets did. Prophets were not predictors of the future. They didn’t read palms or stare into crystal balls. There’s a widespread misunderstanding that Biblical prophecy was about forecasting the future. It doesn’t mean that they never spoke of the future, but God called up prophets to proclaim God’s word in the present moment. They were the go-between, the vessels of communication between God and humanity.] 

So Haggai is a preacher, if you will, prophesying to a mixed congregation of people. He’s got folks who had spent decades in exile, and a few who remembered the former Temple in all of its splendor and glory. He’s got folks who were born long after the former Temple was destroyed who have no memory of the old days. The older members among them couldn’t help but look around and compare the majesty of a bygone era to this meager and mediocre present.

Does this sound relevant to us?

After Haggai asks, Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory?
He says, How does it look to you now?
Then he says what everyone is probably thinking- it doesn’t look like much.
He says, “I know. It looks like nothing doesn’t it?”

It looks like nothing. . . I couldn’t help but think that is the story of many a masterpiece. The story of how it doesn’t look like much at first. . . but someone holds the belief that eventually it will come together.
There was a time when that hit song was just a few chords strung together with a verse or two.
That sculpture was just a chunk of rock until the sculptor chipped away at all that wasn’t a contribution to the creation.
At its inception, the world’s fastest car was just a frame in a shop.

jenna-s-zYd6udlmidk-unsplash

Photo by Jenna S on Unsplash

That world-class meal originated from incidental ingredients in a kitchen.
That timeless novel started with a few stray ideas scratched out in the middle of a sleepless night.
That painting was just a mess of colors on a pallet.
That cathedral was nothing more than a pile of stones at its conception. 

How does it look to you now? Doesn’t it appear as nothing?

 

Haggai acknowledges that, on the surface, the current reality doesn’t compare to the former glory.

It matters- to name that, to hold space for that. The people are weary, overwhelmed, and disappointed. This is not going well at all.
He says, I know. I see you. And I know what we’re doing doesn’t look like much right now. (This is how I feel literally every time I get asked about New Faith Communities. This is actually how I feel. . . most mornings when I wake up and remember that I’m still a pastor in these current times!)

But here’s what happens- the “now” of verse three is replaced by the “now” of verse four.
So now, be strong. Take courage.
Governor, Zerubbabel.
High Priest, Joshua.
All the people of the land.

The word of the LORD is this, so now- yes in this disappointing, mediocre, looks-like-nothing reality that we are living- take courage and be strong.

Work, for I am with you, says the LORD of heavenly forces.
The same way I was with you when you came out of Egypt, my spirit stands in your midst. Don’t fear. 

Haggai goes on to remind the people of how God has acted before, how God came through for the people before, and how God’s gonna do it again. And again. And again. God is trustworthy. Remember what has happened before. 

 

I started reading a book last week called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. The writer Rev. Susan Beaumont describes a liminal season, or liminality, as a time when anything is stuck in neutral space between an ending and a beginning. During liminal seasons, the destination isn’t clear just yet. We are on a threshold of sorts: one foot is rooted in the thing that is not yet over, the other foot is planted in whatever is coming but that is not defined, something that has not even yet begun (p. 7). 

This is liminality. I think Haggai knew something about leading in a season like that.

One of the really helpful distinctions she makes is the difference between change and transition. (She’s actually quoting someone else, but this is what she says). Change is situational and depends on the arrival of something new: getting a new pastor, moving to a new physical site, adopting a new policy. It’s clearcut.
Transition is different. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the change. The starting point for transition is not the outcome you’re moving towards, but the ending that you must make to leave the old situation behind (p. 11). 

Think about a couple expecting their first child. Joy and excitement are there. A new and beautiful change is coming. But something significant is also ending. Couple will no longer be only couple anymore. Couple will be family soon. It’s a happy time of new beginnings, but it also requires saying goodbye to a way of life. No longer is it two beloveds, living life on their own. Couple is becoming family. Transition begins long before baby arrives right? Transition begins by giving one thing its proper ending.

Haggai sees the people who remember the former glories.
Haggai also gives them God’s promise in a time like this.

Be strong, take courage, keep working because God is in it. God’s spirit is in the midst. 

This house will be more glorious than its predecessor, says the LORD of heavenly forces. I will provide prosperity in this place, says the LORD of heavenly forces.

God’s not done. God’s not done moving. God’s not done acting. God’s not done calling up new leaders. God’s not done making the heavens, the earth, the sea, and dry land quake. God’s not done anointing new prophets. God’s not done bringing unexpected blessing. God’s not done filling this house with glory again. God’s not done continuing God’s ongoing commitment to establish shalom in this world. 

In the moments of fear and anxiety and weariness, we would do well to remember when God has come through in the past. I know you’ve done the thing before where, in the midst of something, you get to telling stories with your friends or family about “that one time when. . .” and remembering that story gives you a little more courage, to stand a little more tall in the moment. 

My family has these stories like everyone. My grandma would always talk about this one storm that blew up so bad when she was babysitting my sister and me. We were kids. I was probably 10 or so, my sister around 8. For whatever reason, my grandad wasn’t around and my parents were out of town. I had had a softball game, a friend’s parent dropped me off at home and so it was just my sister, my grandma and me at the house. This storm blew up out of nowhere. It was scary. I can hear my grandma’s voice now talking about how she had to drag my sister down the stairs half asleep, dead weight, because we needed to get in the hallway in the middle of the house to ride it out. Tornado watches, wind howling, lightning, the works ya know.

It was one of those times though, that my grandma would call to, whenever we needed help getting through a new storm.
She would tell the story of an old storm, to take courage that we could make it through this new one.

I know- many of you remember this house in its former glory.
I know- things don’t always look so good right now.

But God’s not done with us yet. It’s not over yet. Haggai reminded his people that the LORD was interested in far more than just a new Temple. God was intent on establishing shalom in that place. God’s intent has not changed over time.
God is still working for the peace and prosperity of the whole community.

Shalom- when health would return, when old hostilities would cease, when the enrichment of life in its fullest sense would be a reality. Spiritual and material. Individual and collective prosperity.
Shalom- when nothing is broken and nothing is missing.

This is God’s dream for the world.
God’s not done making it come to pass.

So now, be strong, Zerubbabel, says the LORD,
Be strong, High Priest Joshua,
And be strong, all you people of the land, says the LORD.
Work, for I am with you, says the LORD of heavenly forces.
As with our agreement when you came out of Egypt,
My spirit stands in your midst, says the LORD, 

don’t fear. 

A Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Link to listen is here:

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

 

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

“Glory to God and praise and love / be now and ever given / by saints below and saints above, / the Church in earth and heaven.”

So concludes Charles Wesley’s classic, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing. Appropriate words to lead us into our Scripture today. John, the writer of Revelation, invites us in today. A multitude gathered together, too many to count, they come from every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages, and they stand before the throne before the Lamb and they’re wearing robes and waving palm branches. 

Can you feel the robes? Are they heavy or light? Scratchy or silky? Can you picture the crowd? There’s people as far as the eye can see. Tall people and short people. Young and old. Skinny and round. Wrinkly and smooth. Black and brown and white people. Can you feel the palm branch in your hand, can you see all of them waving in the air?

There are angels and elders and they fall on their faces and worship God and they do what saints do. . .  they sing. 

They sing.

They sing a song of salvation, a song that declares that God is the one on the throne. No matter how bad it looks. Regardless of what’s going on around us. They sing a song that says despite all evidence to the contrary, God is the one on the throne.

Today is All Saints Sunday. It’s the Sunday that falls after Nov 1 which is All Saints, a feast day of the church. It’s the day for celebration in honor of all the saints of the faith, known and unknown, dead and alive. All Saints Day is also known as All Hallows, and so the root of Halloween is All Hallows’ Eve. 

What is a saint?

And what does John’s vision of the multitude in Revelation mean for us today? Christians living in and around Pink Hill, NC in 2019?

The word saint probably conjures some specific images for us. We might imagine high church icons. We might call to mind images of people like Mother Teresa or Ghandi. We might picture women or men who have seemingly mastered Christian faith, obtained unquestionable morality, people who perhaps gave up their own life for a worthy cause. What is a saint? What does it bring to mind for you?

That word in the New Testament literally means “holy ones.” And if we think that word doesn’t apply to us, well we’re probably right. Except that it does. Our beliefs around saints differ here from our Catholic sisters and brothers, but all followers of Jesus are saints or holy ones and it’s not because of how good we are. We’re not saints because we made the right choice. It’s not because we figured it out and people who don’t follow Jesus haven’t figured it out. It’s not because of anything we have done or decided or accomplished. It’s God’s grace, only and always God’s grace, that makes anyone or anything holy.

There is another aspect to sainthood. John touches on it in Revelation 7 and I’m getting back to that soon, but saints are people who keep on going in the midst of suffering. Saints are people who find ways to sing. To sing through the pain, through the heartache, through the dark nights. 

Many of us stumble into the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. We might look put together on the outside, but the truth is that we oftentimes wobble in, weary and worn down. We dress it up. Put on our Sunday best. . . 

somewhere along the way, Christians got so good at this. We slap on a smile, greet friends and loved ones. We don’t let people in to our real struggles, and we so often forget that the people most drawn to Jesus were those who couldn’t hide their problems. The sick, the paralyzed, the possessed, people who were too poor, too rich, too religious. Somehow, church has become the place where you have to clean up before you come in even though Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary. . .”

Why is it so hard for some of us to admit that we’re weary? 

We don’t want people to see us weak. We don’t want people to judge us. We don’t want people to talk. So we go through life, not showing our hurt. 

God knows our heart. God sees our pain. God hears our cries. God weeps our tears. And ultimately, God is the giver of salvation. 

And that’s really what Revelation 7 is about.

I don’t mind telling you that I wade into the waters of the book of Revelation with great fear and trembling. Most of what we know about this mysterious book in the back of our Bible comes from pop culture, from books and movies that are often times more interested in scaring us. But it’s important to know that John wrote this letter not to instill fear, but to comfort people. John was writing to Christians living under the rule of the Roman Empire, pleading with them not to accommodate to the ways of the Empire. And he was trying to comfort and support persecuted believers. 

After this I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count he writes. They came from everywhere and every place and they were everyone. And they bow before the throne and they worship the Lamb. And there are angels and elders and they do what saints do and they sing.

They sing a song of salvation, a song that declares that God is the one on the throne. No matter how bad it looks. Regardless of what’s going on around us. 

They sing a song that says despite all evidence to the contrary, God is the one on the throne. Not your boss. Not your diagnosis. Not your addiction. Not your disease. Not your dysfunction. Not your demons. Not your conflict.

All glory and wisdom . . . all power and might are God’s. Now and forever.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying “Who are these, robed in white and where have they come from?” He has the annoyed attitude of a long-time country club member whose party has been crashed by unwanted guests. And John says, you’re the one who knows. And the elder looks again.

Maybe this time the elder looks with more compassion, more gentleness, more Godly eyes. Because when he looks again. . . he says, “Oh ok. Now I see. These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal and they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.

When we are prone to say, “Who are these and where did come from?” At those we pass and interact with and run into in our everyday lives. Perhaps, we need only to pause. To stop. To look again. With more compassion, more gentleness, more Godly eyes. Then we might see what the elder saw, “. . .these are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal and they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.

The truth is that we’re all in the midst of or coming out of or facing one we can’t even see, an ordeal of some sort. And the vision, the song, the music of the throne in Revelation 7 is a gift for those of us in any ordeal.

I can’t help but think today of the great losses so many in our church have suffered over the past year. Spouse, mothers, father, in-laws, grandmothers, grandfathers, dear friends, lifetime neighbors. We have lost loved ones. Some of us are still grieving losses of years past. 

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Others of us are in “ordeals” of different kinds: health, job, finance, family, mental health ordeals, something.

Regardless of what our ordeal is, the music at the throne reminds us that there is victory. The ordeal, whatever it may be, did not and will not do us in. The song of the angels and the elders sustain us. Singing helps us endure. 

The song doesn’t erase our troubles. We don’t live with our head in the clouds, but with our feet firmly planted on the ground, and our voices raised- regardless. The song reminds us that while sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning. That as sure as our trouble won’t go away, it won’t last always either, and God will be present to wipe every tear. 

The one who is seated on the throne will sustain us.
“Salvation belongs to our God!” the multitude cries out.
There is victory over death. Shelter from all that causes harm.

We will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun will not strike us, nor any scorching heat. The Lamb will be our shepherd.
The Lamb is surely leading us to springs of the water of life.

The music helps us endure. The song keeps hope alive. And the shadows at bay.

When the powers and the principalities of this world have had their way and run their course, take heart. God remains on the throne. Always and forever.
The one who was, the one who is, and the one who is to come.

a way to make it through

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

29 The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

We want the real thing.

Whether it’s purses, preachers, or prophets, we don’t want a fake.

In Jeremiah’s day, there were false prophets preaching to those who were left behind in Jerusalem after others were exiled in Babylon, and they were saying all kinds of feel-good stuff, “Don’t y’all worry now. You’re gonna be out of this mess in no time. Your friends and family and loved ones will be back home before you know it, cheer up!” 

This is Jeremiah’s “competition” so to speak. It must have been tough. Those prophets were giving desperate people all kinds of messages that they wanted to hear.

(It’s like pastoring a small, mainline denomination church in an era of “non-denominational” [read, “Baptist”] pop-up churches on every corner).

Jeremiah writes to the ones who are in exile, to the people who have been forced to relocate a long ways from home, in a place that is unfamiliar, where they are surrounded by folks who live differently, speak differently, eat differently, dress differently, and worship pagan gods. They are cut off from all that is comfortable and well-known to them and on top of all that, they don’t have access to the temple where they worship in Jerusalem. So even God feels distant.
You can imagine that they would be incredibly eager to listen to anyone saying that all of this will be over very soon, two years tops (Jeremiah 28:3). 

You know what the problem was? It wasn’t true. 

That message felt great, but it was a lie. 

Jeremiah makes it really clear: any prophet promising that everything will get better soon is full of crap. Jeremiah writes to say, Your situation is what it is, and for a good long while, exile is your reality. It’s not changing anytime soon. There’s still good news, but you might as well get comfortable. Cause you’re not going anywhere.

There’s no empty optimism, no pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams that Jeremiah is peddling here. He gives it to em’ straight. Your old life is dead and gone. Your new life is this. It’s here, in Babylon. Among your enemies. Amidst pagans. Deal with it. Dig in. Settle down. Adjust. Exile won’t be over in two years. Actually, you’re gonna have grandchildren here. It might sound harsh at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Jeremiah is being real. Jeremiah is doing what prophets do best- he’s telling the truth. He doesn’t want his people hanging on to any false hope.

And even though there is no promise of a quick or easy way out of this, the LORD does give the people a way to make it through.

It’s unexpected, it’s not what they want to hear, but it is good news.

Build houses and plant gardens and make family and work for the welfare of the city where you are, pray for it, and when the city is whole, you will be whole. That’s the message. Accept the unacceptable. Your situation is not going to change right now, the glory days are gone, things will never be the same again, and that’s hard, but there is a way to make it through.

I know this sucks but it might mean that your financial situation doesn’t get any better any time soon. For what you have, there might not be a cure. The wilderness that you’re in, the feeling like you don’t know which way to go, well, the right path might not present itself right away. Whatever struggle that you find yourself in right now, and it’s something for all of us, the family trouble, the friend trouble, the school trouble, the job trouble, the money trouble, the living situation, it might not get better for awhile.

I know, it’s not what I want to hear either.

But the word for us today is to take heart. There’s a way to make it through. And God is never as distant as it seems.

There is a way to find goodness and beauty and stillness and peace and purpose and wholeness and shalom even in the midst of our chaos and confusion and struggle. 

I can’t help but think of how relevant this is for the church today. Church is so often the place where people are desperately trying to preserve bygone days.
There’s the strong belief that if “we could just get some more young people,” or “if we could just get the right pastor,” or, “if we could just host the right event or play the right music,” then everything would be revived and security and stability would be ours again.

Pastoral leaders speaking prophetically are not popular people. Nobody wants to hear this news at first. No new amputee wants to be reminded that they’ll never walk the same way again, yet how can he ever begin the process of relearning to walk unless he faces the truth? No patient can begin treatment if she doesn’t first accept the diagnosis, no matter how grim it might be in the beginning.

Church, our old life is gone.
We are in a new reality.
There is no quick or easy way out of this, but there is a way to make it through.

Build houses and plant gardens and make family and create community and work for the welfare of the city where you are, pray for it, and when the city is whole, you will be whole.

Jeremiah’s point today is this, even in exile, even in horrible circumstances, even in unimaginably awful situations, even in the midst of death itself, there is a way to experience life. It’s a promise that God gives us through the prophet Jeremiah today and it’s a promise that was substantiated and embodied to the fullest extent in Jesus’ life and ministry and death and resurrection. 

So if things aren’t going to change, how are we supposed to make it through?

Dig in. Plant roots. Seek the shalom of the city, and that’s how you’ll find your own shalom.

Seek the shalom שלום of the city where you arethat’s the Hebrew word for peace, yes, but way more than what we mean when we use that word. 

Shalom is wholeness, completeness, total welfare.
It means nothing is broken and nothing is missing.

What would the shalom of Pink Hill, Lenoir County, Duplin, Jones County look like?

Rather than spending energy on putting it down, pining for bygone days, complaining about how much has changed, and yearning for what will never be again, how would things be different if the people of our community worked for the welfare of this place, for its shalom, for its wholeness? How might we dig in, plant gardens, build houses, and pray together on its behalf? 

What if we found a way to grow food in former dumps (I know of community gardens that got started just like this!)?
What if we figured out how to make art with other people’s trash?
What if we started to repurpose what others have thrown away?
What if we got the lights back on in abandoned buildings? 

What if we listened deeply and lovingly to people’s pain and searched for the poetry in it?
What if we crossed the street and shook hands with our enemy?
What if we laid down our fear? 

What if we learned a new language so that we could surprise a neighbor and say something familiar to them?
What if we didn’t give up?
What if we had eyes to see that things could be different?
What if we tried to help somebody else even when it feels like we’re the ones in need? What if we buried the hatchet?
What if we just let old grudges go?
What if we prayed like it was all up to God and we worked like it was all up to us?
What if we had more neighborhood cookouts?
What if we planned more dance parties?
What if instead of “Yes, but. . .” we said “Yes, AND. . .”

We are being commanded to pray for other people’s welfare. We are being encouraged to work for the wholeness of a place where we might not want to be. We are being reminded that our situation might not change anytime soon.
We are being promised by God though, that there is a way to make it through.

Jeremiah says that if we were to do these things for our city, our community, the place where we are, that in its wholeness, in its welfare, in its shalom, we would find our own. 

Our destiny, our fate, our future is actually tied up in everyone else’s.

Backwards Party

Luke 14:1,7-14

14 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to share a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, they were watching him closely.

When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. 10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

12 Then Jesus said to the person who had invited him, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward.13 Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.14 And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”

The assignment was to do something, in public, that would defy some kind of social norm. To purposely go against one of those unspoken, universal behaviors, rules, tendencies- in public. It was a sociology class and had I known what my future would hold, I would have taken way more of them! At any rate, the professor was requiring us to do this experiment and then to write about it. I don’t know how I came up with this, but I decided to go to a store and walk on my knees.

I can still picture it. I roped my sister into it somehow. I was home for the weekend and we decided to go to the Food Lion near our house in Kinston. We planned to get in and get out, grab something quick- this was going to be embarrassing enough as it was. I had knee pads on under my jeans, we pull in the parking lot, I get out of the car and immediately get down on my knees and we start going in the store.
It was. . .  exceptionally. . . astonishingly uncomfortable.
I mean, people were staring. A couple of folks even looked at my sister and addressed her, as if there was something wrong with me, as if I wouldn’t understand. You can imagine… we’re walking through the grocery store, get our bag of candy or chips or whatever, go through the process of paying. Two teenagers, one walking the way that everyone else is walking and the other walking on her knees.

It’s a funny story but it sticks in my mind as a time when I truly felt the discomfort of acting in a way that goes against the way that we are expected to act.

I remembered that story from college this week because the gospel text is a scene where Jesus challenges longstanding social norms of his day. As is often the case in the gospel of Luke, Jesus is eating and sharing a meal with some folks in their home. Noticing where people were choosing to sit, how they were anxious to grab up the best seats, Jesus tells a parable.

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Photo by Marc Babin on Unsplash

As they are at a meal, Jesus shares a parable about another kind of meal. A wedding feast. The point of the parable is to say that while the custom is to want to be near the host, near the center, as close as possible to the most honorable place (some things never change, right?), it is actually best to sit first in the least important place. That way, the host might call you up. But if you presume to belong in the highest position, someone could come along who outranks you, and embarrassed, you would be sent down. Verse 11 wraps it up with this, All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up. This is not at all the norm of our world. This is not how we are expected to behave.

Lest we fall into the trap of thinking Jesus is just giving us a lesson on dinner etiquette here, we need to be clear. The point is not for this to be some kind of Emily Post, Miss-Manners-Bible guide to table fellowship. Jesus is challenging the standard, disrupting common custom. Jesus is calling into question the way that we know things to be. The parable is one of inversion. Jesus is turning the status quo around. He’s flipping everything on its head.

In the next part of the scene, Jesus addresses the host directly. Jesus has a really particular idea about what kind of guest list we’re to have.

When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward.
Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, lame, and blind. You will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.

Don’t invite our friends, our family, our relatives, the people we’re close to? Don’t invite people on the membership roll? Don’t invite just the Sunday school class? Don’t invite just our favorite people? The ones we already have so much in common with and are easy to be around?

Invite the poor, crippled, lame, blind. . . people who cannot repay. People who cannot grant favors. People who can’t “put in a word for us.” People who are helpless to help us move up in this world.

Throw a banquet, invite these very people, and then, 

then,

then, we will be blessed. 

Jesus, are you actually telling us that the way we will be blessed is by moving away from the seat of honor, choosing to sit in lowly places, shadowy places, unnoticed places, that we will be blessed by giving people special preference who are unable to repay or help us in any economic, social, or political way?

 

My question this week is the same as my question every week when I preach.

What’s this really about?

A banquet, a meal, a party, a feast- these are some of Jesus’ favorite images for the Kingdom of God. That’s what this is about at its heart. When we are living into the Kingdom, when we are embodying the reality that Jesus proclaimed and invited us to embody, What does it look like?
How do we act?
What do we value?
Who do we cherish? 

God’s kingdom is different than what the norms of our world call for. And while many of our norms are harmless and unimportant- things like walking on our feet instead of our knees, many of our social norms are death-dealing. The norms that lift up self-interest and self-preservation at all costs, greed and pride. The Kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate is one of life. Jesus’ entire life and mission and ministry was life and life abundant. 

The good news is that the invitation is always offered to us to live into God’s kingdom now. The promise is that if we do that, life is what is waiting for us- always, life. 

It will be uncomfortable, perhaps humiliating, surely it will be costly at times. 

It’s never easy to go against the way that everyone expects us to act. . . 

As backwards as it will seem though, Jesus assures us it’s actually the right way to be.

 

I shared this song with my two congregations on Sunday morning. It’s a song I heard the songwriter, Allen Levi, sing years ago at a retreat. The song is called, “Where the People Walk Backwards.” It has moved me ever since I heard it and the song captures so much of Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgeRKzElqb0

 

In Memoriam

These are the words I shared at my grandmother’s funeral service. It was a celebration of her life and a witness to the resurrection.
It was on Tuesday morning, August 6 at 11:00 a.m. at Middlesex Baptist Church.

 

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I could on and on about the gift of a gentle grandmother. A grandmother who’s sweet and warm and mild-mannered.

. . .

-Thing is, I wouldn’t be talking about our grandmommy.
Maybe that’s a description of yours, and while mine certainly had some of those qualities, I gotta start with a different set of adjectives.

On behalf of Laura and Jessica and Brian, her four angels as she called us, I’m going to share a little bit about our grandmother.

We really have to start with something like. . .  fierce. Feisty. Spunky. A spitfire. Most stubborn, persistent woman I have ever known. Relentlessly loyal. Endlessly devoted to her family: to my grandad, to her daughters, and to us, her grandchildren, especially.
She was as solid as a rock, as steady as the North Star, as dependable as the sun to rise in the East.

My grandmommy was a fighter too. I’m not surprised that her stroke was so massive. That’s what it would take, and it would have to take that, something massive, to take her out. Anything less than massive, she would have scoffed, chin up, and been back on her feet in a few days.

The memories are too many to count. . . but I remember one particular day in the parking area outside of the Imagination Station. Boy, we took a many a trip to that spot. My sister and my cousin Jessica and I were all in the back seat in car seats. Brian wasn’t even a glimmer in his mama’s eye just yet.

Grandmommy got out, someone approached her, and all of a sudden a verbal alteration ensued. I was young, but from what I remember, the man was significantly younger, bigger, and stronger than her. I think the argument had something to do with where she parked.

We’re looking out the window as they are clearly raising their voices. Laura and Jessica start to cry- being the oldest sibling and cousin that I am, you know I kind of have to hold it together for the younger ones and play it cool, but secretly, I was scared too.

As I thought more about this memory though, I don’t think we were scared for Grandmommy at all. We were scared for that poor man.
And what she might do to him!
And how it might wind her up in jail!
This poor ol’ unassuming soul has picked a fight with the meanest Mama Bear around and she’s got three babies in this backseat. If he had known what was good for him, he would have kept on walking! Which thankfully, he eventually did.

. . . thank goodness. He did.

Just because she was strong doesn’t mean she wasn’t tender, though. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about that. She gave us baths in the kitchen sink, fixed pallets on the floor, set up cots in the playroom, put a chair at the end of the driveway to keep cars from pulling in when we were playing, rocked us to sleep, sang us to sleep, prayed the “Now I lay me down to sleep. . .” prayer more nights than we know.
She bandaged skinned-up knees, rubbed aloe on burns, held us on her lap, read zillions of books to us.
She came to countless ballgames, band concerts, school plays, and church programs.
And of course, she cooked.

And cooked.

And cooked.

Card shark that she was, you had to watch her though. My grandmommy was a cheater in card games with us grandchildren. Whichever grandkid was sitting next to her, you were gonna benefit. Because if we got down to the short rows in Shanghai, and what you needed was a 7 of Clubs and she had it in her hand, she was gonna pass that card underneath the table. And anybody who knows her knows that Evelyn doesn’t take no for an answer. She would punch your leg until you took that card and keep a poker face all the while.

Maybe one of the most important lessons she gave us was that sometimes, love compels us to break the rules. When your love is so big and the rules are too confining, something has to have the last word-and it better be love.

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We owe you so much Grandmommy and there’s so much we’ll miss. Some of it seems small but it’s also the small things that make up a life. I’ll miss you mailing us newspaper articles. I’ll miss you asking me how my ferns look, how my vinkas are doing, and you telling me when to plant my pansies. I’ll miss you asking me if I can use any coupons for Belk and for telling us to take a “nerve pill” to sleep better after a stressful day (I’m still not exactly sure what a nerve pill is). Speaking of stressful days, I’ll miss you telling me to hold my head high through ordination exams because as you always told me,
“Whatever they do to you, you’re woman enough to take it.”

I’ll miss how you always had Kleenex in your pocket and candy in your purse. I’ll miss you calling to tell us to turn to channel such-and-such- they’re showing flowers at the governor’s mansion, or Christmas trees in the White House, or a murder special on Dateline.

We’ll miss your chocolate rolls, chicken salad, and apple jacks.

Thanks to you, we’ll keep eye drops in the car for when we get sleepy. We’ll be sure to freeze extra ice. We’ll never leave home without an emergency pack-a-nabs.
And if it’s not comfortable enough, we’ll always try a piece of foam first.
Foam makes everything lie better.

You loved us better than Peter loved the Lord as you liked to say. My mom and aunt Deborah joke about how she loved us grandchildren more, but I know the truth- she adored them. It was a love that was just different when we came along.

And honestly, love and infinite devotion is what it all comes down to.

Grandmommy would go hungry or do without if it meant us having what we needed. In fact, she couldn’t stand for any ol’ thing in the whole wide world to be hungry. . .

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It is a wonderful thing to be loved so fiercely and tenderly.
It is a marvelous thing to be fought for.
It is a comfort beyond words, the knowledge that someone is in your corner, and that if it came to it, some young punk might have to be taken out in the imagination station parking lot.

Do you know how much better the world would be, how much kinder and more gentle people would be, if they knew what it was to be loved that deeply?
Accepted so unconditionally?

Grandmommy wasn’t perfect. No one is.
She had her nobilities and her flaws like everybody else.

But I’ll tell you this, her love and spirit are part of the reason I fight so dang hard for the least and the last and the lost.

Because every baby in the world, infant and grown-up and all in between, outcast and overlooked, invisible and under-served, every baby of race and country and creed, every baby in the whole wide world deserves to know love like the love she had for us.

Grandmommy, there’ll never be another one quite like you.
I love the thought of you and Mama and Papa Lee and all of your siblings reunited.
I’m sure you’re telling everybody exactly what they should be doing, and whatever they’ve already done, I know you’re fixing it.
I hope you rest some, but I can also see you sweeping the streets of gold with an old-timey red broom.

Thank you for everything.
For every last thing.
You’ll always be the apple of our eye.

Grandaddy, we are going to let you take over from here.
Like you *thought* you were doing 71 years ago.

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We found my grandmother’s high school “Autograph” book this week. Our grandad, James, had gone to the last page of the book to write his remarks. We laughed an awful lot at what he wrote.

 

Before I leave for the border. . .

I leave for Texas tomorrow morning. I am traveling with a group of United Methodist pastors to the U.S./Mexico border. The purpose of the trip is not mission or service, it is immersion and learning. It’s difficult to capture my thoughts and feelings before I take this trip. In case I ever doubted it, my Spanish lessons over the past few weeks more than confirmed it- I have an awful lot to learn. There’s just so much I don’t know and the language is only a fraction of it.

What I do know is that I don’t have to take this trip to be convinced that things are bad. I’ve been on a journey for ten years now, learning the history of this country that one has to hunt for. The history that is mostly hidden from textbooks and glossed over in lessons and lectures. I didn’t get it in public school growing up and I didn’t even get it in college, but thankfully, my consciousness began to be raised in seminary (thank you, Dr. Cannon) and ever since I have continued my own education. I know now, of the two hundred and fifty years of chattel slavery and how our version of it was the worst in human history. I know now of the racial terror that followed Reconstruction: the decades of lynching, convict leasing, criminalization, disenfranchisement, and desecration of black and brown bodies. I know now of the dehumanizing, dignity-stealing, segregation system of Jim Crow. I know now that the evolution of this racial hierarchy has manifested itself today in the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies at a rate that is higher than any other nation in the world. And while I am not nearly as educated as I need to be on this part, I do know that this history of ours is littered with anti-immigration sentiment solidified in court and cemented in law.

I study racism.

I know things are bad.

So I am not taking this trip to be convinced about that, but I also can’t separate my awareness of this history in what we are going to experience. Once you know something, there’s no going back. And there is no detachment of what is happening currently in our nation from what has happened in it for centuries.
“The past is not dead,” Faulkner said, “it’s not even past.”

I am traveling with these pastors because I was given this opportunity as a gift and I do not take that lightly. Many people will not get such an opportunity. I am traveling because pilgrimage, embodiment, and incarnation matters.

God came to us. In our space. In our experience.
God moved in to our neighborhood, put our skin on, and walked around in our world.

Jesus spent his entire ministry going.

Jesus went to where people were, spent time on their turf, listened to their stories, paid attention to their pain, was moved by their struggle, and responded.

Jesus healed and loved and touched and prayed and stayed and ate and kept dragging chairs to the table and passing out more bread and making space at the feast.

 

I am going on this trip to listen and to see. I am going so that I can be moved. I am going to experience God, meet Jesus, and follow the Spirit in a place unfamiliar to me. I am going so that I can have more compassion because, Lord knows, I don’t know how we can change the world without first having more compassion.

Incarnation matters. So it’s important that when we get the chance, we go.

And it’s crucial that when we come home, we are never the same.