Saturday, May 28, 2016

“A Man Set under Authority” - May 29, 2016

Luke 7:1-10

            On this Memorial Day weekend we recall and honor those who died in the course of doing their duty.  War is never good.  War is never anything to be sought.  Even to consider war is to admit to the failure of human beings to respond to the grace of God.  Victory in war does not come without unleashing the most base and terrible instincts of the human animal, and those who have been in battle are generally the last to glorify it.  General Sherman said, “War is hell,” and he was in a position to know.

            Yet there are times in the midst of such horror that positive virtues are not only seen, but are an absolute necessity.  Discipline, quick thinking, loyalty, courage, patience, endurance – these are among them.  They are qualities of character that may be present in anyone in varying degrees but in military situations, they are cultivated and in some people they put down deep

            One such person was the Roman centurion – an officer set over one hundred men – who sent word to Jesus asking that his slave be healed.  He was someone who expected his orders to be obeyed, and I have no doubt they were.  He saw in Jesus someone who was more powerful than himself and therefore someone whose orders would be obeyed in the same way.  When Jesus was on his way to the centurion’s house,

“the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’” [Luke 7:6-8]

Jesus saw in this, and told his disciples, an amazing example of faith.  For the centurion, however, it was only a matter of duty.  If Jesus is Lord, of course his orders will be obeyed.

            Jesus’ orders differed from the centurion’s orders in a very specific way, of course.  Jesus’ orders were not given so that someone might be killed, but so that someone might be healed.  His will was not one that brings death, but one that gives healing and life.

            Again, at Memorial Day, we should not forget that there have been times when even in the midst of death, there have been those whose faith in a God whose will is life have trusted their own lives into God’s keeping and, like the centurion, have calmly accepted that God will be faithful to them in times when loss lay close at hand.  For some, that has meant showing that faith in the face of their own deaths.

Seventy-three years ago, on February 3, 1943, a converted luxury liner named Dorchester had left Newfoundland and was transporting over 900 troops to an American base in Greenland.  According to reports,

“Around 12:55 a.m., a German U-boat fired a torpedo that struck Dorchester’s starboard side, below the water line and near the engine room. The explosion instantly killed 100 men and knocked out power and radio communication with Dorchester’s three escort ships. Within 20 minutes, the transport sank and more than 670 men died.”

That’s war.  That’s how things go.

            What happened in those last twenty minutes, however, was retold by the survivors.  Something happened that is worth remembering.

“Aboard the ship were four chaplains of different faiths: Reverend George Fox (Methodist), Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode, Reverend Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed) and Father John Washington (Roman Catholic). …

As soldiers rushed to lifeboats the four chaplains spread out, comforting the wounded and directing others to safety.  One survivor, Private William Bednar, later said ‘I could hear men crying, pleading, praying.  I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage.  Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.’

Another survivor, John Ladd, watched the chaplains distribute life jackets, and when they ran out they removed theirs and gave them to four young me. ‘It was the finest thing I have seen, or hope to see, this side of heaven.’ He recalled.

As Dorchester sank, the chaplains were seen linked arm in arm, praying.”[1]

            Set under authority, they knew what their duty was, and it came together with their faith and provided life to as many around them as they could reach.  For themselves, they could face death knowing the life that lies beyond, knowing the God who gives life and in whose sight the lives of his people are precious.

            We, too, are set under the Lord’s authority.  We use that title, “Lord”, almost without thinking about its inherent meaning of one who is in charge and who is due faithful service.  We are those who are told, not to go and conquer, but to go and make disciples.  We are told to go and live with humility and generosity.  We are told to care for others, even to love them as ourselves.  We are to be, even when in authority ourselves, people who care for those without the same influence or honor or position, like a centurion caring about what happened to a slave.  Imagine, if you will, a Senator going out of the way to find a doctor for the janitor who empties the office trash every day.  Picture the president of Morgan Stanley or Wells Fargo checking up on a bicycle messenger who was hurt on the way from one branch office to another.

            Yet is that so different from what Jesus has done for us?  It is, in fact, far less.  Isaac Watts asked himself,
“Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His Name?

Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?

Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord.
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.

Thy saints in all this glorious war
Shall conquer, though they die;
They see the triumph from afar,
By faith’s discerning eye.

When that illustrious day shall rise,
And all Thy armies shine
In robes of victory through the skies,
The glory shall be Thine.”

[1] Matt Gills, “The Bravery of Four Chaplains” at

Saturday, May 21, 2016

“Wisdom in the Mix” - May 22, 2016

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

“All of its parts gleamed: the exterior lacquer, the open keyboard, the interior brightwork.  Yet it was clearly not brand new; a soft patina to the black lacquer made it less a mirror than the misted surface of a pool, with traces of matte where the finish was worn.  The keyboard was of real ivory, a prohibited material for new pianos since the 1980s, and the keys had yellowed over the years, some of them considerably.  Its strings, although far from rusty, had the steel-gray luster of worn metal, and the red felt dampers showed a softer tone of purple than the vivid scarlet felt of new pianos.  This piano had lived, had been played.”

That’s how Thad Carhart describes his first encounter with a piano that would come to live with his wife, his son, and him in a small apartment in Paris.  He continued:

“This piano, I decided, looked plucky, a Cinderella of an instrument.  Images of underdogs disenfranchised by their wicked betters, only to emerge triumphant, swam around in my head.  …In a flash I realized that I was entirely taken by the idea that this little piano was somehow good and therefore right for my family.”[1]

The rest of his book expands on that idea.

It sounds weird, I know, but have you never felt like there was something inanimate or at least non-human that was trying to tell you something?  I’m not saying that you have looked down into a bowl of Alpha Bits at breakfast and seen it spelling out, “Good morning!” or that your neighbor’s cat has been telling you to move to Florida.  If those things are happening, it’s probably something neurological that you should get checked out.  What I mean is having a sense that the world itself, or some part of it in particular for you, is trying to tell you a little bit about God.

According to Romans 1:20, Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”  Psalm 8 gives an example of nature suddenly confronting someone with God’s grandeur:

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth! 

You have set your glory above the heavens. 
   Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
   to silence the enemy and the avenger. 

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars that you have established; 
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   mortals that you care for them? 

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
   and crowned them with glory and honor. 
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
   you have put all things under their feet, 
all sheep and oxen,
   and also the beasts of the field, 
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
   whatever passes along the paths of the seas. 

Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

            What we get from Proverbs, though, is a reminder that we humans are part of that nature, and learning God’s wisdom comes both from observing the wider world and from observing human interactions.  We have heard this morning that great, poetic depiction of the wisdom of God built into the pattern of the universe:

“Before the mountains had been shaped,
   before the hills, I was brought forth— 
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
   or the world’s first bits of soil. 
When he established the heavens, I was there,
   when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 
when he made firm the skies above,
   when he established the fountains of the deep, 
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
   so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 
   then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,” 
[Proverbs 8:25-30]

which then suddenly turns and finishes with

“rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.”
[Proverbs 8:31]

In fact, God’s wisdom is so wrapped up in humanity that God himself became human that we might know what that wisdom looks like by being expressed through the thoroughly and perfectly human life of Jesus.

That serves as a corrective to our meager efforts to gain wisdom.  The world does speak to us in amazing ways, but we also have a tendency to mix things up.  We understand at best in part.  The way that we treated Jesus shows that tragically.  Yet God’s wisdom used even our greatest failure to offer us all that we need. 

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
   and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
[I Corinthians 1:18-25]

If wisdom is found in human life, it is found most clearly in the most human life of all: that of Jesus.

            Christian proclamation does not provide anyone with a cohesive philosophy and say, “Okay, let’s walk through this from first principles to conclusions.”  What we do is tell the story.  We tell the story that begins with creation and how things have somehow gone wrong, and we tell how God set about working to put it to rights again, until finally on a cross outside Jerusalem it all came together – all that is wrong with us and all that is right with God, all our foolishness and all God’s wisdom.  We tell the story of how the collision crushed the man at its center and how three days later we learned that it didn’t crush the love of God and he returned invincible.  We tell the story of how that has changed people over the years, and how it has changed us.

            We share the wisdom that we have gained, and we share it freely, as God has shared with us,

  “ rejoicing before him always, 
rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.”

[1] Thad Carhart, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (New York: Random House, 2000), 27-28.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

“Children of God” - May 15, 2016 (Pentecost)

Romans 8:14-17

            Most of the time, when I think about what it means to be a child of God, I think about what that means for me.  What does it tell me that God has reached out to call me his own?  What does that mean for you, that he has freely called you to be part of his family?  What effect does it have on the way we view and treat one another?

            All of that matters.  However, it leaves out the central person concerned.  What does it tell us about God?

            Adoption is an act taken by a parent, not by a child.  Nobody can forcibly become a mother or father that way.  It’s not like anybody runs up to them on the street and shoves a baby in a blanket into their arms.  Even in cases where a child is suddenly discovered to need care, as when biological parents die or become desperately ill, or are overtaken by some kind of tragedy, someone might foster a child for a period without adopting her and making that sort of permanent commitment that says, “Daughter!” or “Son!”

            Hear the experience of a Lutheran pastor, Walter Wangerin, who wrote to his son Matthew the evening before Matthew’s confirmation.

“I first saw you in a crib – thick neck, enormous eyes, compact brown energy, fine amber hair, and I thought, ‘Can I love this one?’ …

Here is the miracle: my love for you came out of you!  You came with printed directions.  You trained me. …
At first it was a foolish love aggressive, fierce, protective.  When we carried you to the grocery stores, we gathered the stares of the people.  Our family was a riddle they couldn’t solve.  My ears would burn at their ill restraint; I’d grab you to my heart and stare back to shame their eyes.  My face said, ‘Mine!  He’s mine, you little minds!”  And so you were.

There was a neighbor, in those early days, who said that you couldn’t play with her daughter.  She’d seen the two of you holding hands, and she said, ‘Black and white don’t marry.’  Nip it, I suppose, in the bud; you were four years old.  I sat in that woman’s kitchen and in a low, choked voice declared you were my son and she should think of me precisely as she thought of you. …

But the second miracle and the second source of my love for you was the marvelous, holy, and indestructible, the greatest of them all.  I came to understand, through the years, that it is in the very image of adoption, and thus divine, that God participates -- …

And quietly I understood: in fact, God is your father, and a better one than I.  But God and I both became your fathers in exactly the same way.  Matthew, God also adopted you!  You were not born his son, either.  It was something that he chose to do for you.  But his adoption contains a love unspeakably sweet and powerful, far beyond my poor, fumbling efforts.  …

Oh, my adopted son!  My love for you and my fatherhood both I hide completely in the remarkable love and fatherhood of God for you.  There is where this wonder comes from.  He patterns and empowers it.  For a little while he allows me to experience the self-same joy that he has loving you.  For a little while he lets me be your father – just like him. …

Who says that adoption makes a lesser relationship than blood or the will of the flesh?  Let him contend with the Almighty!  And let him be ashamed.”[1]

            Confirmation is a public recognition of what God has already done, taking us in even as unformed, unaware, helpless babies – or sometimes as overly experienced, self-conscious adults who cannot let go of the control we think we have over life – and naming us as part of his family, someone with whom he chooses to throw in his lot, someone whose sorrows and joys and struggles he will share, and from whom he can never fully separate himself.  God has called us by name.

            And we reply with baby talk, maybe – “Abba!” is the ancient Aramaic word for “Daddy” – but we reply with a recognition of the love that has gone into the relationship before our own.  We reply with a recognition that God imparts a family resemblance to us that allows us to show others what he is like by what he does with us.  That’s a tall order for people like you and me.  Thank God that it doesn’t depend on us, but on him.  So leave the judgment and the fear and all of that behind, and live as the amazing person God knows that you are, even when you don’t see it in yourself.

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” [Romans 8:15-17]


[1] Walter Wangerin, “To Matthew, at Confirmation” in Ragman and Other Cries of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 116-119.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

“A Woman Who Spoke Up” - May 8, 2016

Acts 16:16-34

            The Mafia inherited a lot of its basic structure from the Romans.  Roman society was organized around a system of patronage.  A handful of families controlled political and economic life, with shifting alliances among themselves – the Caesars and the Flavians and the Antonines and so forth.  Each family was an extended network with its Father at the top and people who owed him favors at the bottom.  I’m about to read a historian’s description of how things worked.  Think about Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in The Godfather when you hear it.

“Roman societal patronage was highly based around the Roman ideals of fides or loyalty.  Clients were loyal supporters of high standing families and at the head of those families were the patronus, or their patron. For this loyalty the patron rewarded their loyal clients with gifts of food and land. If a client needed any sort of legal representation or aid they called upon their patron for support. Patrons often handed out sportulas, which were monetary handouts for their support and loyalty. The patron received not just loyalty from their clients but they also had the respect, men for guarded escorts, and their political support.”[1]

What was meant by “political support” might be someone doing exactly what that slave girl in the book of Acts did for Paul and Luke. 

“The client would sing praises of their patron when they ran for office, and would be forced to vote for them.  Aiding his patron in his private life and accompanying him when he appeared in public are other tasks performed by clients.”[2] 

That makes the way that Paul treated her all the more shocking by Roman standards.  He put up with her support for awhile, but then silenced her.  As Luke recalls,

“One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.”  [Acts 16:16-18]

Christianity was not to be established as one more, competing faction in the bloodthirsty arena that was Roman society.  The apostles were not going to set themselves up as patrons and create their network of clients.  There would not be the pattern of “one-hand-washes-the-other” and “you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours”.  (We still use a Latin phrase for that: quid pro quo.

            People would be people, not sources of wealth and prestige, and that would begin with this slave girl who, interestingly, identified Paul and Luke as also slaves, “slaves of the Most High God” [16:17].  Paul didn’t simply order her to be silent.  He ordered the spirit that had taken her over to release her.  He set her free from the system that was using her and making a profit off of her.  This Christianity was dangerous to the system because it didn’t play by the rules.  So the Empire struck back.

“But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.” [Acts 16:19-24]

            Jump ahead with me here, about two thousand years, and travel to the other side of the world.  Have you followed some of what has been going on in the Philippines lately?  There has been a drought since November caused by El Nino that has left people hungry and threatens this year’s crops.  According to the Vatican News’s reporters, one of the provincial governments has been so unresponsive to calls for assistance from farmers that at the start of last month about 6,000 of them blockaded a road in protest.  After three days, the governor’s response was to order troops to disperse them.  The troops fired on the crowd.  At least three people died and many, many more were injured.  Survivors took refuge
in the Spottsville United Methodist Church, claiming the ancient right of sanctuary, while the government prepared legal action against the bishop and the pastor.[3]  Eventually, the police moved in and executed a search warrant.  Now, here’s the point I want to emphasize – when they had searched every last person who took refuge, they found not a single weapon anywhere among them.[4]

            The people were acting in a way that did not accept and did not even mimic the rules of confrontation that the powerful use against the powerless.  In so doing, it becomes less clear who really is or is not powerless.  Paul and Silas were locked away in prison, and

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.[Acts 16:25-26]

Notice that it wasn’t just the two of them who were set loose.  It was everyone.  They had freed the slave girl from at least part of her exploitation, and God freed the two of them but also the rest of the people there while he was at it.

            Then there was the jailer.  He was part of the Roman system but was imprisoned by that same system – accused, judged, and condemned automatically.  He knew what would happen to him if he could not account for his prisoners, so

“When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’  [Acts 16:27-28]

That act alone, the act of not running away, gave Paul and Silas the chance to speak of God’s power to save and the jailer believed and then he, in turn, flipped around the way he treated the prisoners.  No more Roman rules.

“At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.”  [Acts 16:33-34]

            God does not play by our rules, but calls us to play by his.  They are not the rules of the Mafia or the Roman Empire.  They are not the rules of might-makes-right.  They are not the rules of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”.  They are not the rules of “if you hit me, I get to hit back harder”.  They are not the rules of “somebody punch that guy in the nose and I’ll pay your legal bills”.  Try this out:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:43-48]

No, we are not yet perfect.  Speaking only for myself, I have a far way to go.  Speaking for the Church as a whole, we have a far way to go.  But at least that’s the direction we head for, and by God’s grace we may do some good to others along the way, and maybe set someone else free to do the same.

            It does happen.  Ask that slave girl.  Ask the jailer.  Maybe ask yourself.