Holy Disruptions

Reader…the following is a sermon manuscript that has had an interesting life. It started as a few notes for a Good Friday video devotion and then became a hopeful blog post for Holy Saturday (I hate that name), until finally becoming a sermon. If you can’t find all the pieces in this post, I will be shocked. I don’t like the messiness of posting a manuscript because the oral art of preaching transforms even sentence structures. But I share it with you anyway. (If a good editor wants to make some notes on it and send it back to me, no offense will be taken!)

Based on Matthew 28:1-10

At the beginning of the COVID19 outbreak, I had high hopes that I would find a lot of time that I could devote to writing and maybe even making my blog “alive” again. But alas, the learning curve on technology that I have had to master over the past few weeks, the new ways I have had to learn to adapt as pastor, husband, father, brother, son, and friend during this time just seemed to eat away what little creativity I had left. I started this in several forms, several times and failed.

But it kept building up this past Holy Week and I have to share it on Easter Sunday.

Matt was my best friend in first grade and for the first half of our second year of school. We were in the same class but first met during the walk home from school. Matt lived closer to Barrackville (there is no “s” in that, folks) Elementary, but it was on the same route I took home, so we would often walk together and talk. It wasn’t long till the friendship spilled over into school and recess. Our friendship would grow deeper because of the time after school. Occasionally, we would pass by his house, walk half-way to mine, and stop at a little “Mom and Pop” store to get some candy. Then we would go our separate ways.

Eventually, my mom and dad gave me permission to stop at his house and play after school. And we did the things first grade boys would do – climb trees, play games, and make stuff up to do, and, oh yeah, break things. Imagination and creativity in our 6 and 7 year old selves wasn’t limited by what other people might think of what we created or thought, or even by how much the other laughed at some silly creation, it was only limited by the time we had and the materials that we had at hand.

Boxes became spaceships and racecars.

Clouds could be anything.

We even took the time, perhaps in the summer between first and second grade, to come up with an entire new monetary system which we called “Funny Money”. We made billions and billions of “Bucks” on that idea. The only problem was that no one else would accept it as legal tender. We always had hope that it would catch on some day, but just didn’t know how to manipulate the system to make that happen. Our parents would not even buy in.

Somewhere near Thanksgiving of that second grade year, my Dad let us know that the temporary job that he had been working in Beckley was soon to become permanent. We would move over the Christmas holiday.

I went to Matt’s house for the last time on the day school let out for Christmas break. We made sure we had each other’s phone numbers, addresses, and exactly half of the Funny Money each. We promised to stay in touch with one another. There weren’t any tears, because, first of all, we were boys and we didn’t do that sort of stuff. But deeper still was the overriding belief that this was just some little interruption to our friendship. We’d be back at it in no time.

My family moved what was at that time six hours away. You can do that drive in half the time now that I-79 is complete and the bridge over the “Big Ditch” (I’ll explain why I call the New River Gorge that some other time.) are complete and Route 19 is basically a four lane highway now. But in 1972, the trip took six hours.

I remember talking to Matt one time after that. It was a phone call. I can’t even remember what we said.

And, of course, I don’t have any Funny Money. Not even sure what I spent the last of it on. Probably used as a bookmark and eventually threw it away. It may be buried in a box somewhere near the house in Mt. Hope where I grew up. I might have used it to paper some creation or another. Maybe I burned it all. I just don’t know.

Something has been churning in my head for a while now. I’ve talked about it with a few trusted friends. I’ve tried to give voice to the words in a video recording that I could share, but somewhere in the midst of talking, my thoughts got jumbled from the notes I had made. So, I tried to use my blogging muscle, but even that got distracted. In the end – it is this, a sermon for Easter. The story of my short friendship with Matt and the way he and I both looked at my family moving away from Barackville as an “interruption” to our friendship is just a way that I’m able to imagine what I want to say.

COVID19 is not an interruption to our lives. It is a disruption of life itself. Or, at least, it could be. I feel quite certain that there will be powers at work to try and get everything back to just the way it used to be, but in my heart of hearts, I both think and hope that they will fail miserably. I hope we come out of this thing not just shaking off the dust and going back to making Funny Money or whatever it is that we do but instead we step out into a world made new by the disruption of some respiratory virus that is so novel that it makes everything novel.

An interruption is a phone call from some sales person during dinner. I might be irritated a bit, but it doesn’t spoil a good meal. A disruption is a phone call from the hospital telling you that “You need to come now. Your son was in an accident.” Life isn’t the same, the world isn’t the same after a disruption.

And COVID19? This little bug has disrupted everybody. Think about it. Even the President of the United States, who was never very fond of the press, has spent extended periods of time with them every single day. Think about it. There was a time when if you heard two people in a grocery store, one of them passing gas and the other one coughing, you’d have kept your distance from the former rather than the latter. Think about it. I walked outside about a week ago and I could smell the aroma of baking bread coming from the Heiner’s bakery that is over a mile away. (Go ahead, Southsiders…give it a try. It’s wonderful!)

Think about it. This is no mere interruption. This is a disruption.

Forgive me, but I have to remanence again. This time, I’m not going quite so far back.

When I was in seminary, I actually took a course on Preaching. Yeah, they offer those there and despite what my congregations are subjected to on a regular basis, I took one and passed. I didn’t get an “A” but I didn’t fail either. But, I did come close.

We all were assigned passages to preach on that appear in the Lectionary. I lucked out and got the gospel lesson for Easter that just so happens to be the same passage that comes up this year in the Lectionary, Matthew’s account of the women coming to the tomb. That had to be the luckiest draw in preaching that anyone could get in seminary – the equivalent to winning the lottery. I mean, come on! Preaching on the Resurrection? Piece of cake.

Well, I found a way to screw it up. Somewhere in the midst of my sermon in front of classmates and professor, I started referring to the “miracle of the Resurrection” and made repeated mentions of it throughout the sermon. I noticed the first time I said the phrase that my professor shifted in his seat and I thought, well, that got his attention.

Oh, it did.

When I got my sermon manuscript back, it was marked with a big ugly letter grade that rhymes with the letters “C and B” but has a much harder sound at the beginning, and underneath it in very legible writing, that really didn’t need the double underlining to draw attention to it, were the words, “The Resurrection of Jesus IS NO MERE MIRACLE! IT IS AN ESCHATOLOGICAL EVENT THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING!!” (Now, I could tell you what eschatological means. I do know. I even knew it then. But I’m gonna have more fun imagining you at home Googling it. E-S-C-H-A-T-O-L-O-G-I-C-A-L) The fact of the matter is that my professor was absolutely right. The Resurrection wasn’t about some miraculous event. It. Did. Change. Everything.

Or at least it is supposed to change everything. The problem is that we have to realize that it changed everything and like good little humans, we can choose not to do so.

The resurrection is a disruption – not an interruption. It reverses the power of death. It sets us free from the bondage of law. It changes everything – past, present, and future. (That’s a hint for those of you who both didn’t know the meaning of eschatological and were not willing to Google it because you knew I thought it would be funny.)

COVID19 is also a disruption. Not on the level of the Resurrection, mind you, but it is an incredible opportunity for us as individuals, communities of faith, families, nations, and yes, even the whole world, to accept that things have changed and allow God to introduce new life into these mortal bodies and mortally built systems that we describe as “normal.”

As I wrote earlier, I have been working this out in my brain for a little while. I thought I would write it out on Good Friday, because, the way I see it now, we are still too close to the event of COVID19 to know exactly what will change and what won’t. Lots and lots of people will predict. Lots and lots of people will be wrong. It’s sort of like standing and staring at the Cross of Jesus knowing that this is bad, but the best thing to do is run and hide. Good disciple.

But I finished this out yesterday on the day known as “Holy Saturday” – a name that is further proof that Christianity is woefully disconnected from our culture. A better name might be “Woah! This is the most different Saturday ever!!!” Because, it is the most different Saturday ever. The Son of God is dead and in a tomb. If we thought things were bad on Friday, then the unknowing of this time is even worse.

And that is where I think we are right now as Homo Sapiens. We are at that Saturday mark following a major disrupter of history.

So, what comes on Sunday? What is Easter going to be?

I don’t know for this event. We can let God recreate us and everything we hold onto, or we can blink, stretch, and go back to normal. I don’t want to do that. I want to use this time as a jumping off point into whatever new thing it is that God would allow to happen. I don’t want rescued from this virus. I want resurrected! I want the church resurrected – not just with ‘new people’ but with a whole new way of being church! We are figuring it out now when we have to, why can’t we figure it out in the not so distant post-COVID19 world as well?

We’ve done one heck of a good job fighting back against a “novel” virus. The real question is “Can we fight for a ‘novel’ world in a post-virus age?”

The women came to the tomb, felt the earth quake, saw soldier fall stupid with fear, and then had a angel say to them – “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said.”

Sometime in the future, we are going to walk out of this social isolation, feel the earth quake, see people around acting strange out of fear, and maybe, just maybe, if we have the faith and grab hard onto the hope that Resurrection offers, we will hear an angel say to us, “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for normal that got locked up during this pandemic. Normal is not here. Normal is being recreated by Resurrection people like you, just as Jesus said.”

P.S. – Matt, if by some chance you happen to read this…sorry about the Funny Money. We really should have been bright enough to figure out cyber currency instead. And Dr. Lischer. Thanks. I know better now.

 

Hospitality – September 1, 2019

This past Sunday we had some technical issues that led to us not being able to post a video of the sermon. For those who may not know, I write my sermons in script – not typing. They are not always full “manuscripts” either but enough notes to get me through the sermon. So, what I am posting today may be what I said on Sunday or it could be what I wished I had said on Sunday. Either way, I don’t let it get in the way of what I hoped I heard in the midst of it – Good News for all!

Luke 14:1, 7-14 Common English Bible

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.”

 

It was the last week of my seminary education at Duke, a very busy time. Celebrations were scheduled. Family was coming to town. A very busy time.

The Divinity School had made arrangements with our publishing house in the United Methodist Church to offer training to students on the “hottest” new Bible study program – Disciple Bible Study. The training would normally cost a pastor several hundreds of dollars and this perk looked like something I should check out – at least the first day. I would have to miss a couple of important events but I honestly thought I would attend a session or two and then just not come back due to lack of interest.

Somewhere in the training I got hooked. And I was glad I did. In some ways, the training I received over those three days were more useful than a lot of the classes I had spent weeks in during seminary.

Over the years I have led several Disciple groups in churches that I have served and I am certain that it was offered here at First Church as well. (Out of curiosity, could I see a show of hands of the number of people who have been involved in DBS?) About what I guessed it would be.

One of my favorite parts of Disciple both in teaching and taking the course was the way it handled the Gospel of Luke. Something about the title of those lessons stuck with me – “The Least, the Last and the Lost.” DBS explained that Luke wrote that particular Gospel from the perspective of that group of people – the least, the last, and the lost. It was the Gospel of the people on the margins, the people on the outside, those who were not religious insiders.

As I prepared for this week’s message, it was disconcerting as I kept reading through this particular story about Jesus spending his Sabbath day with Pharisees (consummate religious insiders) and very wealthy Pharisees at that. In some ways the Jesus of “The Least, The Last, and The Lost” seemed to take a break from the gospel narrative Luke was weaving. I kept asking, “What is Luke’s Jesus doing with all these people who are trying to impress God with their ability to keep rules.

And the more I read it, the more troubled I became. Until…until I noticed something peculiar happening in the text. These Pharisees who stuck their claim on religious righteousness by obeying the Law to its fullest extent were breaking the Sabbath! They were throwing a dinner party on the Sabbath – the day they were supposed to be honoring God. Now, I know, they could indeed invite a guest or two to their Sabbath meal, but it is quite apparent in this text that there is a whole lot more going on than that. This was an all out celebration of all things Pharisaical.

And believe it or not, that made Jesus’ presence sensible to me. Suddenly, Jesus is hanging out with the “rule breaking, rule keepers.” (Some might call them the hypocrites, but I just prefer to see them as yet another group of “the lost.”) They were breaking the Sabbath by partying even as they accused Jesus (their guest at the party, no less) of breaking the Sabbath by healing people!

The irony of it all hit me.

The thing about trying to get close to God by keeping all the rules is pretty simple: your faith has everything to do with ‘what you do’ and nothing at all with what ‘God does for you.’

And sure enough, as they gathered for their Sabbath shattering gathering, it was all about them. So much so that Jesus tells a parable about a wedding feast where the guests are jockeying for the best seats at the table. In some odd way, this parable of Jesus affirmed the Pharisees tacit acknowledgement that the Sabbath was made for humans while pointing out that they were missing the point of being invited to take part in what God could offer them by way of invitation. They would rather just point to themselves instead of waiting to be invited forward.

Jesus is saying, “Sure, have your big parties – even on the Sabbath – but if you really want to do them right, give seats of honor to the least. At the very minimum, don’t grab these seats for yourself because the host might just know to whom it really belongs. The host might show hospitality to “the least”.

And in this story we know who the host honored the most. Right after the parable, Jesus turns to that host to address him personally. Now, I am pretty certain Jesus could have pulled this off from any position at the table, but there is something about Luke’s telling of this story that makes it obvious that Jesus is seated at the place of honor – just to the right of the host. He turns to him and offers him some words that most people see as words of “warning” or maybe even condemnation.

I don’t get that.

I see Jesus thanking the host for including this homeless, wandering, Nazarene teacher as the guest of honor at the Sabbath shattering dinner party. Jesus is thanking him and letting him know that by continuing to invite people that could never pay him back with an invitation of their own, this Pharisee is really going to see some fabulous rewards.

And then there are those who are invited to a Table this morning – a Table that is hosted by Jesus. The invitation has been extended to us and if we take it we know that we could never, ever, really pay back the invitee.

Jesus is the host.

Jesus is the very Feast.

Jesus is the presence that we all need.

So, what are we to do?

When you walked into the Narthex of the Mt. Hope United Methodist Church on Sunday morning you would almost always see a snow shovel hanging on several of the coat hooks that lined the wall. It was not waiting for winter to be used, but instead had painted on it words that had been carried all through the town that morning – “Repent! Jesus is coming!”

Somewhere near the fourth row from the back – on the right hand side as you entered the sanctuary –just outside the pew and just enough in the way to trip an unsuspecting guest, you would find a pair of oversized, pull-over, rubber, snow boots as well. And you would be right to assume that the boots and the shovel belonged to the same person.

Paul – or “Crazy Paul” as the kids of Mt. Hope had christened him with their words and the occasional pelting of rocks – would be in that fourth pew from the back. His heavy winter coat on during all seasons for fear that when that sun went dark and the moon turned to blood, he might be cold and unprepared. His beard was hanging down upon his chest with the obvious crumbs from breakfasts past peppered among the hairs.

Paul was as faithful to that little church as any one of the pew racks – he was there every time the doors were open and sometimes the imagination of a child would think he was there even when the doors were locked tight.

However, on communion Sundays, when the pastor would stand at the front and offer the little cups of Jesus blood and the little cubes of Jesus body, Paul would come forward with the rest of the crowd. But he was different than the rest too. Paul would come with those weathered hands that held the snow shovel sign as he walked through town, gently crossed over one another like a beggar who would be happy with the crumbs from his own beard. He would come forward and “receive” communion – he never took it – he received it as the gift it was to him. He knew he could never pay it back.

My sisters and brothers, like in the gospel of the Least, the Last and the Lost this morning, hospitality is offered at the Table we come to today. It’s offered for rule keepers who fail gloriously and for all those who realize we can never pay it back.

And as we leave this Table today, may re remember the host/honored guest whispering in our ears like he did the host in that story we read – “Everything you need to know about hospitality you just learned here.” Everything. Whether you are in the church or at work. Whether you are at your home or talking to the server in the restaurant. Hospitality is learned at this Table.

Amen.

Twenty Five Years too Late

Greenville, NC was booming in the early 1990’s. A growing college campus, a regional hospital and pharmaceutical companies were making the area of Pitt County NC a destination for many new people.

The United Methodist Church saw the growth and new that a new congregation would be the best way to tap into the new people coming into the area. After several months of ground work by a planting team, Easter 1992, they launched their new service of Covenant UMC in a local Boy’s and Girls Club.

By the summer of 1992, the attendance at Covenant had hit 800 and was climbing. The pastor reached out to Duke Divinity School for a summer intern and somehow I ended up going there for the summer before I started my first year of seminary. It was a dream placement. I got to see the church at its most exciting. New people were coming to faith every week. Folks who had fallen away from “Church” finding their way back. The pastor was dynamic. Their music was phenomenal. And the felling around the gathering of this new congregation was one that was filled with hope – there was nothing God couldn’t do.

I was given the opportunity to preach a couple of times at Covenant that summer. On the first occasion, I had slipped into my white alb prior to arriving at the Boys and Girls Club and was just out mingling with the folks showing up for worship. I felt a tap on my shoulder and then a voice in my ear said quite clearly, “Hey, where’s your hood?” And then they laughed and walked off.

I didn’t get it at first. I wondered why anyone would need a hood in the humidity of Greenville. After a couple of steps and watching the end of my white alb sway as I walked, I froze at the realization of what this man meant. I couldn’t believe this came from one of our wonderful new congregation members. How could they possibly think that this sacred outfit was “that kind of robe.”

But they did. That is exactly what they saw.

I never wore it again in Greenville but I was quite comfortable wearing it once I returned to West Virginia. Had I been given the chance, I would have worn it to my ordination. But alas, in those days, we had to wear black robes.

This week, I saw the alb hanging in my office closest and thought I might bring it out for this week’s worship service in Princeton. It had been a while since I had worn it.

And then Friday night happened in Charlottesville. And then Saturday’s horrors.

I took the alb to the sanctuary Sunday morning but I was not wearing it. I simply hung it up where it could be seen.

The text I preached on that morning was Matthew 11:22-33. You may know it as the one where Jesus walks on water. And the one where Peter sinks. The disciples all get called people of “weak faith.” What had struck me that week was the fact that Jesus used people of weak or little faith to build the Kingdom. As I thought about the weekend’s event and my holding onto that symbol that could be so easily misunderstood, I realized that I too was a man of weak faith.

I told the story of that morning in Greenville and my inability to say anything in return. I told my congregation that I was a man of little faith. Then I picked up the alb and ripped it in half and placed it on the chancel rail of the church. Here is a picture of the destruction for now. Here is a link to the video…It is silent, but I think it speaks louder that way – you already know the story!  https://vimeo.com/229491973

Torn Alb

I know that not every white person in our churches see albs and think immediately of the Klan. But some of them do. Some of them do. I did not want anything of my already white privileged life to become a confusing symbol to anyone. Anyone. We have allowed symbols to lead to hate. Hate lead to speech. Speech lead to the disaster that hit a beautiful college town in Virginia. I will no longer wear a symbol even closely resembled to white hate in any way. I hope to find somewhere, some way that I can send the pieces of this alb to be refashioned into something of peace. Don’t know if that’s possible but I’m open to ideas.

I also offer a challenge to my fellow white clergy anywhere.

Ditch the albs.

Sure, I know they have other meanings. I know that they symbolize so much. But I also know that our actions here could speak much louder than anything else. Ditch the alb…Take up the preaching robe with love, justice, and peace. Let’s make a change that no one can miss. It took me twenty five years to gain the little bit of faith I needed to make a statement with this piece of white clothing. I pray it takes you less.

Thanks for reading. Thanks even more for joining me if you wish.

To see the entire sermon…go here.