Monday, August 24, 2015

8-23

The Sacred Art of Stone Throwing
John 8: 1-11

There is probably no more well-known but also troubling scene in all the gospels than our text this morning. Here we find the religious elite bringing a “sinner” to Jesus — not for forgiveness, but for justice; not for redemption but for revenge.  They were members of the “Sacred Society of Self-Righteous Stone Throwers.”  They loved to find someone doing something “wrong” and bring them to public ridicule.  Why?  Why is a good question, is it not?
Have we given much thought to what goes into producing someone like this?  No one is born legalistic or judgmental; we are forged into that pattern in life.  What forces had so conspired that these had become such ardent attackers of “sin?”  We would not consider these to be “bad” or “evil” persons. They were the pillars of society, i.e., teachers of the law & religious leaders.  These were highly educated and thoughtful men whose primary concern was to have a country in which God’s rule prevailed.  Their public personae was of persons who desired to follow God’s law, the Torah, to the nth degree.  They only sought this same level of righteousness for others as well.  They fervently believed that if all would follow God’s law that not only would their society be successful above all others, but that the Kingdom of God would prevail.  These men would make good neighbors: no loud parties, keep the yards mowed and the flower beds weeded.  They only wanted a good and moral society to live in, did they not?
We know how they felt, do we not?  We see so many changes in morality and so many divergent “lifestyles” that there can rise up in us a desire to set the world straight.  Let’s not kid ourselves — these emotions run deep within all of us.  We are all just a few steps away from joining vendetta groups to bring “sinners” to Jesus for correction and edification in morals.  We are all at times on the verge of taking up stones and bringing the judgment of God (or so we say) on others.
I believe there was an underlying issue which was only tangentially connected with this woman.  These men were afraid — and fear does strange things to us.  They feared they were losing control over their society.  They feared the Roman reaction if this rabble-rousing-rabbi from Nazareth kept preaching his “good news.”  Already his popularity was rising and they feared that he might lead a rebellion that would bring the Roman boot down upon their neck.  Fear does strange things to us — it moves us in ways and down paths we would otherwise never go.
The conundrum that faced Jesus is simple: the Torah (in Deuteronomy) called for the stoning of those who committed adultery.  Roman law prohibited the Jews from carrying out capital punishment of any kind without Roman permission.  If Jesus had said that she should be stoned, then the Romans would have arrested him.  If Jesus had said that she should go free—then he would have been discredited in the eyes of the Jewish faithful.  After all, adultery was one of the Ten Commandments — #7  I believe.  
Years ago as I read this episode more closely a question jumped out at me:  Where is the man?  The last time I checked it takes two to commit adultery.  Why have they only brought a woman?  These men have displayed their hand by bringing only the woman. Was she a married woman caught having sex with a unmarried man?  Probably, but doesn’t that still make both guilty?  Had they set her up with a man solely for the purpose of challenging Jesus? Stone throwers often act in haste rather than thinking through all the ramifications of their actions.
Equally appalling is not so much the issue raised, but the manner of its raising.  These men had not one thought about the dignity or worth of this woman.  In their eyes she was not a woman, but an adulteress who forfeited her right to live upon committing this sin.  They thought of her in terms of adjectives, not nouns.
Jesus knew the difference between adjectives and nouns.  As humans we are never adjectives — they only describe the perception of others.  Yes, this woman was guilty of adultery; but first and foremost she was a woman, a person created in the image of God of worth and value.  When we place adjectives on a person — black, white, Latino, disabled, dishonest, stern, etc., we change the terms of their existence and we have no right to do that.  Jesus saw people apart from descriptors; he saw them as children of God — no more and no less.  Stone throwers confuse adjectives and nouns, because it is easier to kill another if they are less than human.
Jesus’ response to both the men and the woman is truly remarkable.  Initially he says nothing to the crowd, but just kneels down and begins to write in the sand.  There have been all matter of suggestions as to what he wrote —  but we really do not know.  Did he start writing the list of their sins?  Did he write the ten Hebrew letters that summarize the Ten Commandments?  By his refusal to speak to them Jesus indicates that he is not interested in their Wild West lynch mob form of justice, in joining their Sacred Society.  Jesus ignores them and in so doing indicates that he will have nothing to do with their vigilantism.  
However, these leaders will not let this rest; they push the matter so that Jesus finally utters those well-known words: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  You could have dropped an atom bomb in their midst and it would not have had this much effect.  In that second Jesus shifted the focus from her sin to theirs, from her failure to their failures.  Subconsciously they were projecting their shadow side onto her; she was their scapegoat. If they could punish her then they would also remove their sin.  Jesus would not let them do that.  Each must confess his/her own sin — then and today.
We really don’t want to talk much about our sin—do we?  Sin is what other people do—not what we do.  Soren Kierkegaard said that “Sin is either trying to be more than we should be, arrogance or less than we should be, laziness.” Either way we are guilty of falling short of who God has created us to be.
We’re not talking about innocence here — either with the woman, the leaders, or with us.  Life is not a matter of innocence — we are all guilty at some level and we know it whether we will admit it or not.  Confess it we must…for the person who will not confess socio-pathological.  Each and all of us are guilty at one level or another.  Jesus hits them squarely on the nail of universal guilt.  We are all guilty.
The reaction of the crowd is priceless.  One by one they leave, from the oldest to the youngest.  The oldest left first, for they knew well the truth of which Jesus spoke.  Age does that to us; it enables us to see our imperfections so much better than when we are young.  I guess that is why grandparents tend to be so much more lenient than parents; they know well that life is not a game of perfect but of falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up.  When we are young we strive to have the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect family, the perfect house, the perfect car, the perfect career—and so on.  By the time we reach middle age we know that there is no such thing as perfect — and that really is o.k.  
Jesus kneels and writes again — until the entire crowd is left.  Rising up Jesus questions her concerning her accusers and then gives her those words of grace: “Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way and from now on do not sin again.”  Can we imagine how this woman felt?  Ten minutes earlier she believed her life was over; now not only was she free, she was forgiven. 
Forgiven! How great is the knowledge and feeling that one’s sin is put in the past and is an issue no more.  As far as the east is from the West, so far has God removed our transgressions from us” is how the Psalmist describes it.  Forgiveness is simply giving a person a second chance on the same terms as the first. 
Have you ever heard of the disease of scleroderma?  It is a gradual hardening of the soft tissue, both inside and outside our bodies.  Unnoticed at first — usually mistaken for aging or some other normal deterioration of our fine motor skills, eventually we realize that something more is going on. 
As horrific as scleroderma is, even more horrendous is spiritual scleroderma, because it not only hardens our heart toward others, it hardens our heart toward the Spirit. When we are unable to feel the reality of our sin and our need for forgiveness, then we know our heart is ossifying — spiritual scleroderma is at work.  When we no longer feel the need to worship, to seek God and know God’s Spirit in our lives — then spiritual scleroderma is at work.  The more it works, the more self-righteousness we become. The more ossified our heart the less compassion and understanding we exhibit for others who fail.  
These religious leaders knew about God’s mercy and forgiveness, but they felt no need for it — their hearts were ossified beyond measure.  This hardening process occurs so subtlety and quietly that we do not notice it until we are well down the path of legalism and judgmentalism.  If we do not see our own need of forgiveness we will never be able to fully forgive others, no matter how much Bible we may quote or theology we may spout.  Could it be that what God really wants in a church is to be a place where forgiveness can be had…no matter what?  Could it be that all else in Christianity is really secondary to forgiveness and grace?  
In Spain a father and son had a falling out and the son said some very harsh and cruel words, leaving the house and swearing to never return.  His father, who loved him deeply, set off to find him. He searched and he searched for months on end, but to no avail. Finally, in one last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in the Madrid Newspaper. The ad read: “Dear Paco, please meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven; I love you, Your Father.”  It is said, that on that Saturday, eight-hundred men named Paco showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.
What about us?  Do we have unfinished business with family and friends?  Is there forgiveness that needs to be offered, to be requested, to be given?  
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?   She said, ‘No one, sir.’  And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way and from now on do not sin again.’”
Amen.


August 23rd, 2015

Sunday, July 5, 2015

7-5-15

The Emerywood Pulpit
“Confessions of a Repentant Southerner…”
Luke 10: 25-37
Week before last, on June 25th, our national somnambulance was once again shattered by the bullets of a deranged gunman.  This time, however, it was in our own beloved Carolinas — Charleston, South Carolina — to be exact.  The details we know all too well — they are ever with us.  On that fateful Wednesday evening twelve African-Americans were engaged in a Bible Study of Jesus’ parable of the “Sower and the Soils” when a young, white male, Dylann Storm Roof, entered the room.  After speaking with them for over an hour, he pulled out a pistol and started firing.  Nine of the twelve were brutally murdered — he reloaded at least twice — and then he calmly left the church and the premises.  He was captured the next day in North Carolina and presumably has seen the last freedom he will ever know.
Once again our nation has been turned upside down as the issues of race and gun violence have raised their ugly heads.  I will leave the issue of gun violence for another day.  My concern this morning is with the underlying racism that drove him to such lengths.  Mr. Roof not only displayed racist photographs and videos on the web, he even told his victims that he was killing them as an act of racial revenge.  “I wanted to start a race war” is what he is said to have told the police and justice officials.
Racism is the proverbial ball and chain around our leg as a nation — and particularly as a region.  No matter how hard we try we just cannot seem to be set free.  As a native of the Deep South for most of my early years — New Orleans, La. by birth and Alabamian by residence — and then in the South for most of the remaining years, I have lived with racism, both open and hidden, my entire life.  (To be honest, I also lived in Portland, Oregon and there encountered racism just as in the South.)  Racism is not limited to our beloved South, though it certainly has its tentacles deep in our red clay soil.  However, it is here — and we can no longer ignore it.
For decades racism was socially and culturally acceptable.  In my youth I knew otherwise “good people” who used the “n” word just as any other word; their excuse was simple — “that’s what you called those people.”  However, I must say that we were never allowed to say the “n” word in my home of origin, nor have I ever allowed it to be said in my presence without challenge. 
As a Southerner I have heard incredible rationalizations as to why racism and bigotry were ordained of God.  I have witnessed systemic racism bury itself within the fabric of our culture and work its dirty business unseen and unknown.  If America is ever to live up to its calling as a bastion of freedom and liberty, then we must do our due diligence to recognize incipient racism in all its manifestations; we must work together to eradicate every last remnant of publicly acceptable racism. 
What does it mean to be a racist?  Most of us do not consider ourselves to be overtly racist, and for the most part we are not.  We do not hate another person because of the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, the slant of their eyes or any other physical characteristic.  However, not being overtly racist does not comprise the totality of racism — it is only one expression of racism.  Racism is the preference for persons of our own tribe. PLU’s is the commonly acceptable acronym:  “People Like Us.”  To be sure, racial tribalism or cultural “clannishness” is a common, human, cultural trait but that does not mean that it is of Christ.  Just because something seems to be hardwired into our cultural DNA does not justify it one iota.
There is a deeper aspect of our racial preference that we do not always identify.  Racism involves the tendency to “see” another racial group in terms of the worst characteristics of the worst members of that group.  Simultaneously, racism sees ourselves and our group in terms of the best members of our group.  For instance, in my youth in the deep I was told (by persons other than my parents) that all blacks were lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, dishonest and uneducable.  Obviously that was not and is not the case, but it was convenient for our white majority to think thusly as it gave justification for discrimination, Jim Crow laws, etc.  Central to this subconscious racism was the development of “slang” terms for persons of other races, terms which insidiously move us toward seeing the other as beneath us, or less than human. Wop, Chink, Spic, Dago — the “n” word…these are just a few of the terms we use which dehumanize another.  These are not just innocent slang terms, but epithets which devalue and degrade a fellow human who also bears the image of God.
Why do we act in this manner?  Simply put, as humans we live with a certain level of residual inferiority, the belief that, at bottom, we are not good enough.  One of the ways for us to it is a way for us to justify/feel good about ourselves is to denigrate the other as less than human.  You may object that what we see in racists is a “superiority,” but we know that such arrogance is really a covering for deep “inferiority.”  As humans we are driven by fear much more than we are compelled by our faith.  Racism, at its core, is fear based — as it all evil.
This is seen quite clearly in the Confederate Flag controversy.  For the most part, those who wave or display the Confederate battle flag are white people for whom life has been at best a struggle.  Economically they are on the bottom rung — or close to it.  Educationally they are usually there as well — those often go hand in hand.  For them this flag is a symbol of their defiance of a governmental system which they believe works against them and for others, particularly African-Americans.  In the early years of the 20th century poor whites and poor blacks often had the same economic struggles.  The sole comfort for these poor whites was that “At least I’m not black.”  Now, as education has offered persons of all races opportunities to grow and develop, the anger and frustration of these who occupy the lower socio-economic rungs has focused on a flag as their symbol and on race as their enemy.  These may claim it is heritage and not hate, but rarely is that the case — and we know it.  For those who want to fly this flag I have only one question: given its history as the symbol of the Lost Cause — of a racially motivated rebellion against our country — would Jesus fly this flag?  
Racism is subtle, rarely presenting itself as evil.  Rather, racism, like all sin, masks itself as that which is good.  Many of those who owned slaves or later  perpetuated racism in our culture did not necessarily consider themselves to be “evil persons.”  Many were active in churches, worshipped God, loved Jesus and sought to share what they understood as the gospel, as truncated as their version may have been.  They were people who were doing what they thought to be right in order to “preserve their way of life,” which they assumed to be ordained of God.  
The specific translation used this morning is one by Clarence Jordan called “The Cotton Patch Bible.”  He translated most of the New Testament into the language of the South and in so doing personalized these stories and teachings for us.  Here we have the familiar story of “The Good Samaritan.”  What is shocking about that story is that the usual “good guys,” the persons Jesus’ listeners assumed would stop and help, did not.  Their fellow Israelites crossed over and went on by, even after seeing this one in distress.  When Jesus said that the one who stopped and helped was a “Samaritan,” I can imagine that you would have heard the proverbial pin drop.  This was the last person any Jew expected to stop or wanted to stop.  Samaritans were half-breeds, the result of “inter-racial” families from the days of the Babylonian Exile.  No self-respecting Jew would ever say anything good about a Samaritan.  Yet, Jesus does, because Jesus wants to show his questioner just what it means to be a person of God.  
Salvation (the original question posed) for Jesus is not about keeping the law, but about loving one’s neighbor, i.e., for Jesus the neighbor being the one whose need presents itself to me. Further, by making the neighbor a Samaritan — or in our cultural node a black man — Jesus shatters all our pretensions about our goodness and righteousness.  
To grow up in the South is to grow up as a conflicted person: loving the people and heritage of which we are apart, yet feeling quite deep shame at the entrenched racism of our past and present. A prime example of this is one of my personal heroes, General Robert E. Lee.  As a son of the South I always felt badly that we fought the Civil War, much less that we lost it.  I became a history major — and in particular a Southern history major — due to my desire to understand more and more about this region of my birth.  General Lee was the salvation for most of the South, particularly the more educated Southerners.  He was the classic figure of a Southern gentleman in every way, not to mention that he was an incredibly good general (other than at Gettysburg where his vanity and pride overran his wisdom.)  Yet, in reality he was a slaveholder and a traitor to his country.  He violated his own oath, taken at his induction as an officer in the US Army, to never take up arms against his own country.  Yes, he stipulated in his will that his slaves should be freed upon his death — but he allowed his wife to keep what she needed until her death.  As I have studied his life through the years I have come to see that he is, at best, a flawed hero.
In the South (and nationally) we have used up all the cliches and metaphors possible to explain away what is really residual racism.  Here we are in 2015 and we still send each other racist emails as supposed “jokes.”  When I replied to some of these with the statement that these were un-Christlike, I was quickly deleted from some lists, and gratefully so.  Who wants a spoil-sport pointing out our racism to us?  We live by the myth that we’re not racist anymore, yet it refuses to go away.  When fraternities on college don blackface for parties we know that racism lingers deep within.  
Last year a pastor and good friend of mine married his daughter to a man whom he said was one of the finest young men he knew.  What was unusual about this was that she married an African-American man.  I saw the pictures and I thought, “How would I respond if I had a daughter who did this?  How would I have responded if one of my sons had married a girl of another race?  Would I be as loving and accepting as my friend?”
Jesus Christ came to set us free — and part of that freedom is to be free from the constraints of racism which is anti-God, anti-Christ and sinful in all its manifestations.  If we cannot see all persons as created in the image of God…if the color of skin or ethnic background keeps us from seeing them in the love that flows from God, then we are living in sin and are in need of the grace of God.  To participate in or acquiesce to any manner of racism — whether in jest or in seriousness — is to participate in sin and evil.
Are we racists?  Not really…not in the angry, vengeful way.  Would we ever think of putting another person down for their race or making crude comments about another over their racial characteristics?  I don’t believe so.  Why, we even welcome people of other races when they attend!
Yet, I must confess that as a proclaimer of the gospel for now 40 years, I have failed my congregations.  I have failed to help us see that racism needs to be confronted and eradicated whenever possible.  I have allowed us to be comfortable with our congregations being 99.9% white and thinking that this reflects the Body of Christ.  I have allowed us to look the other way when racial issues came to the fore in our community and nation.  I have been at ease in Zion, at peace with a culture that is not close to the Kingdom of God.
Why did I not focus on this residual sin that will not go away?  Because it is too close to home, that’s why.  Because when we start preaching and teaching about this sin, church people get uncomfortable and say things like, “We’re just not spiritual anymore.”  Why, they may even go to another church if I say too much about it.  So, I just throw it out there once in a while in a sermon, but never in a challenging or confrontative fashion.  This is why I say that I have failed you.  I have let you think that our congregational life as we know it is pleasing to God, when in reality it is anything but.
So, what can we do?
 Confess our sin to God and ask for forgiveness.  Confess not only our individual sin, but our cultural sin.  Ask God to forgive us for tolerating theological heresy and sin and accepting them as normative.
Develop a primary value which says that all persons are created in the image of God and as such deserve to be treated with dignity, acceptance, respect and love, regardless of how they treat us in return.  Until we get our values right, our lives will never be right.
Do not be a party to or go along with racism in any shape or form.  Challenge racists statements when made in our presence.  Refuse to laugh at or be party to racist statements or jokes of any kind.  If someone had confronted Dylann Roof we might never have known of a “Charleston Nine.”
 Ask God to use us to not only combat racism, but to be integral in working for and building up a community of faith which goes beyond racial and ethnic identities.  To this end we need to intentionally seek to make friends across racial lines.  Develop fellowship meals and “Dinners for 8” with persons of other races and ethnicities.  Have conversations with persons of other races about their experiences; seek to understand what transpires in their lives.  
Can we do this?  Yes, but it will take the grace and power of God, for we cannot do it on our own; we are too weak. Tuesday evening I attended the “Community in Unity” service at St. Stephen’s AME Church.  There was a decent but not great attendance — about 125 or so.  The music was wonderful, the preaching was great.  However, I was blown away by the Rev. Kinston Jones, a young African-American minister who organized the service.  In his remarks he said: “A lot has been said about the Charleston Nine, but not much about the One.  I want us to pray for Dylann Roof, for the salvation of his soul, that he might turn to Christ and know forgiveness and healing.”  Then he proceeded to do just that — to pray for the perpetrator of these horrendous murders.  How do you do that?  How do you pray that prayer when that man has just stated that he wanted to start a war so that all black people would be killed?
You can do that when your heart is surrendered to God in Jesus Christ, when your primary motivation and purpose is not self, but allowing God to love others through you.  Years ago there was a man named John Newton whose life was characterized by rebellion and chaos.  He worked aboard a British Naval vessel, but rebelled against the discipline and deserted.  He was captured, put in irons and flogged.  He later convinced the captain to discharge him to a slaving vessel.  Later while at sea he went through a tremendous storm and feared for his life.  Providentially someone had given him Thomas A’ Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.  In the bowels of that ship he prayed and asked God to save him.  Later he worked on a slaving ship, knowing that what they were doing was wrong, but hoping through his presence to curb its excesses.  Some forty years passed (1787) during which time he grew in his faith and became a minister of the gospel — he had long since left the seas.  It was then wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade for the express purpose of helping his friend and member of Parliament, William Wilberforce in his campaign to outlaw the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire.  Ultimately they were successful.
During his time as minister he led a Thursday evening prayer service.  Almost every week he wrote a hymn for that service — 280 to be exact.  It was in this stage of life that he penned the hymn for which he is most well-known: Amazing Grace.  In his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, "I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”
Amazing grace…how sweet the sound…can we sing that song knowing that it is only by grace that any of us are acceptable?  Can we sing that song knowing that as we have received grace, so we are to extend grace…to all God’s children?  As I sing this song today I am singing it in repentance, asking God to forgive me for not being more bold and true to the gospel I know and love.  “Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far…and grace will see me home.”
Amen.
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262
July 5th, 2015

Monday, June 1, 2015

5/3/2015

“An Offer We Ought Not Refuse...”
Matthew 22: 1-14
Did we hear all these preparations being made? Oxen and fattened calves were killed...I imagine tents erected, food prepared, musicians hired...hotel rooms reserved...rabbi on stand-bye. We mere mortals cannot imagine what a wedding banquet such as this would cost. Or, maybe we could. According to Business Insider, to make the list of the 12 most expensive weddings in recent history you had to spend at least 1.5 million. The most expensive was Prince Charles and Diana — $48 million in 1981 or $110 million in today’s money. If we wish to look at someone who spent their own money and not that of a nation-state, we could consider second place: Vanisha Mittal and Amit Bhatia of India. The bill was $60 million in 2005, or $66 million when adjusted for inflation.1
To be sure this wedding portrayed in our text was the event of the year, probably of the decade, and maybe even of the century in Palestine. Obviously they sent out “save the date” invitations six months earlier; then the King sent his servants to personally bring the invitees to the banquet.  

This reminds me of the couple who spent $900,000 flying 500 guests to the wedding on private jets. What more could one do to ensure that his son had a proper wedding?


For some unknown reason the invitees refused to come. The King could not believe it. He was enraged; none dare refuse the offer of a King to come to a wedding banquet. (This is like the statement from the Godfather movies: “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse!”) So, being the “nice guy” that the King was, he sent more servants to explain that everything was ready and issue one more invitation. Surely they would now come. Yet again not only did they refuse, the invitees mocked the servants, even seizing and killing them. How’s that for saying “No thanks!”

The King’s blood was running hot...fiery hot. I can just hear him now: “Those no-good, unworthy so and so’s...I’ll show them what happens when you turn me down.” He sends his soldiers to kill those who rejected his offer and then he has them burn down the town. Literally...burn down the town. I can only imagine how fast word must have spread throughout the region: “If this King invites you, you best show up...you don’t want to refuse this offer.”

But now the King has a serious problem: who will be the guests at his son’s banquet? He just killed off the primary guest list; where can you find more friends with whom to party at this late hour? Where else but the streets? So, he tells his servants (the one’s who are left): “Go out on the streets and invite anyone and everyone to come to the party...rich, poor, good or bad...regardless of creed or ethnicity... bring them all in so we can celebrate and party.”

So they do — and what a party it must have been. I am sure that it got a little rowdy; after all these were not the “country club clientele” who were now gracing the dance floor, eating caviar or drinking champagne. No, these were the people who knew how to get down with it...they had more in common with the servants and the band than with the King. They might have even talked the band into playing country music or at least some good old South Carolina shag!

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Just when you think that you have seen it all, the King surprises everyone. He notices a man enjoying himself who does not have on the proper garb — he is not wearing his wedding garment (translation — tuxedo or at least dark suit.) Anyone knows that when you come to a wedding after 6:00pm you have to wear a tux. However, not our friend...he’s there in blue jeans, tee shirt and flip flops just having a good old time. The King challenges him: “How did you get in here without the proper clothes?” Our friend is so stunned that he cannot answer...he just stares speechless at the floor...thinking to himself: “Is there a dress code? Did I miss something?” Then the King utters these words that echo across the room and down the corridors: “Throw him out and let him go to hell. For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Do you think the party ended shortly thereafter? I sure do. I can see the guests heading for exits, tuxedos or not, for this King is not one with whom one can trifle. When he invites you, you best come — and dressed to the nines as well.

OK — I can see you are all just as puzzled as me at this parable. After wrestling with it this week I was so glad that it is not an allegory, where every part reflects some area of life. (The portrayal of God as the King, for instance, is not one with which I am comfortable.

What is important here are not the details per se, but the fact of God’s great invitation to us all to the banquet of celebration in the Kingdom of God. Jewish weddings were great affairs which often lasted a week or more. The contract/proposal was agreed upon by the parents; then the bridegroom would show up, often unexpectedly, at his bride’s home to take here to his home where the feast would be prepared. After this word would go out to the guests, the party would start and the guests would come from all around. To refuse the invitation would be to shame the King, the giver of the party; no one in their right mind would do that. Would they? Would we?

Let’s bring this home a bit. What about us? We’ve all been given an invitation to the celebration of life and life eternal. This is an invitation to a life in Christ that begins now and never ends. To say yes to the invitation is to accept this incredible invitation to live in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. When we say yes to Christ we say yes, we will be at this party which begins now and never ends.

What about those who refuse? Jesus is telling us a strange truth: all are invited, but not all accept. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” For whatever reasons there are those who refuse to join the party. Oh, they want to hear the band...some will even stand outside and listen. But commit to the party — no way.

Far too often we who claim to follow Christ are guilty of a hollow commitment, an insincere “yes” to the “save the date” but a “no” when the date comes. Yes, we will follow Christ; no, not right now — its’ just not convenient. Yes, we would love to come be a part of a celebration; no, I’ve other things to do. Saying yes...but then no — is to say no, is it not? If you go back one chapter to Matthew 21: 28-33 Jesus tells the parable about the two sons — one whom said yes and did not go and the other said no but went. The doing of the will of God, it seems, is not in the verbal reply, but is found in our actions, in the obedience of our life. Do we really show up at the banquet, properly attired and ready for action?

What about these who killed the servants? Jesus talks straight to the Jewish leaders who have rejected the prophets and even Jesus, and they know it. He says to them, “Not only have you refused to come to the party...you have even killed the messengers of God who brought the invitation. Now, since you refuse to come, not only will you perish outside the Kingdom, I will invite and and all who will to come.”

This parable comes at a vital time in the life of Jesus: Wednesday of Holy Week. This is the day of controversy, the day when push comes to shove and the confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish leaders are coming to a head. Immediately following this parable Matthew tells us that these leaders try to trap Jesus into betraying his hand by demanding to know whether they should pay taxes to Rome. Yes, the journey of Jesus is approaching that climatic moment.

Before we get too far down this road, let’s take a minute and look that those whom Jesus is saying rejected the invitation. They would have been most surprised, for they would have said that they accepted the invitation. After all, they were “good, God-fearing people who loved God, obeyed the Torah (mostly) and just knew that they were ‘God’s people.’” How did they reject the invitation? They rejected the invitation when they refused to listen to the prophets who sought to bring correction to their life, particularly in the areas of social and economic justice. They rejected the invitation when they made religion a matter of private practice/relationship and not applicable to societal structures or to social moral and ethical issues. They rejected the invitation when they ostracized, imprisoned, and/or ignored the prophets/messengers for speaking to these very issues.

All my ministry I have heard the mantra over and over again: “Following Jesus is about going to heaven when you die and not about those social issues you keep talking about!” Nothing could be further from the truth. “Going to heaven when we die” and working to align our social structures/lifestyles with the biblical witness are one and the same — the result of a life of full and complete surrender to Jesus the Christ. The gospel of Jesus is about the in-breaking, the coming of the Kingdom of God in this world. The gospel of Jesus is about us working together to establish communities where the justice and economics of the Kingdom are practiced. This gospel is about realizing that in this Kingdom we come alive with one another and with Christ in such a way that life, even when it is difficult, becomes a banquet, a celebration of life under God. Working for social and economic justice? Not a problem when you’re a part of the wedding banquet...not a problem when you’ve read the prophets and heard their message in the depths of one’s soul.

But — what about our guest who gets evicted for not wearing a tuxedo? Can we get in and get thrown out? In Palestine a good host not only invited you to the wedding, he provided you with a proper wedding garment. When you arrived you were given the garment to put on as you entered the party. To not have on the proper garment is simply a matter that this one, like the earlier invitees, refused the gracious invitation of the King and wanted to enter on his own terms. Wearing one’s own clothes, in this parable, was like believing that salvation could come by one’s own merits, one’s own righteousness. Just as entry into the banquet was by the grace of the King — and our acceptance of that grace, so entry into the Kingdom of God is by grace and grace alone. We don’t get into the Kingdom on our own merits...and we don’t stay in the Kingdom by those either.

We live in a culture where we all expect to live full and complete lives — and go to heaven when we die. Even for those who never grace a church or work to build the Kingdom, we still have that

subconscious, cultural thread: “they were good people and they surely will be in heaven...right, Preacher?” Maybe, maybe not? Maybe how we live and the faith we live out are of vital importance? Maybe, just maybe, saying yes to the invitation and living out the values of the Kingdom are of first hand importance. Maybe, just maybe not all “good people” go to heaven?

Can we recall these earlier words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 7? (I think Matthew was giving us early warning...)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ 2

So...have you had any good wedding banquet invitations lately? Might we ought to pay attention to them? Have we said yes to the invitation that came to us? When will we?

1 http://www.businessinsider.com/most-expensive-weddings-2010-7?op=1#ixzz3bLWgFZEj 2 Matthew 7: 21-23
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Thursday, April 2, 2015

2015 Good Friday Sermon


“Nails…”
Nails…nails…nails…have we ever really looked at a nail?  There’s nothing pretty or subtle about a nail.  A nail cannot be misunderstood as something else…when used as a noun it is what it is: “a small metal spike with a broadened flat head, driven typically into wood with a hammer to join things together or to serve as a peg or hook.”

Nails are for driving, for nailing, for joining objects together.  We nail boards, sheetrock, shingles and countless other objects.  Nails are ancient…but they remain quick, efficient and relatively painless.  Unless of course in the act of nailing you happen to hit your own finger.  In which case pain becomes an integral part of the process.

Crucifixion involved nailing…in this case the nailing of a human limb to wood with the use of a larger nail or spike.  Crucifixion was about inflicting pain — the Romans knew just what size nail to use and where to use it in order to inflict pain without the victim rapidly bleeding to death.  The Romans were experts in a number of matters, most involving violence and pain.  Crucifixion was among those of which the Romans were the best.  One has said of the Romans, “They ran out of wood for crosses; they ran out of places for crosses; but they never ran out of persons for crosses.”

Nails…there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about a nail.  A nail can be used to build or it can be used to inflict pain…a nail can save or a nail can destroy.  A nail is nothing more than a tool in the hand of a person: a carpenter, a laborer, or a soldier.  What we do with a nail…ah, there’s the rub.  For ultimately what we do with a nail says more about us than it does about the nail.  

So, the question confronts, no, it haunts us this evening: How do we as humans primarily use the nails of our lives?  Do we use these nails to build — or to destroy?  If we were to look back over our lives, have we built up more than we have destroyed?  Have we used the nails, the tools which God has provided for us, to help or to hinder…to provide hope or to hurt another?

These soldiers who crucified Jesus and the two thieves had the option to use the tools in their hands, the hammer and nails, to create something useful or beautiful — or to destroy what God has created.  They chose the latter — and in so doing demonstrated for all time how they understood human existence:  life is about following orders, doing things the “right way” and if one does not, then one will pay the price.

The reality is that in our sin we each and all nail Jesus to the cross — and in our sin we do it time and again.  When we hurt another, reject another, shame another — are we not just driving more nails into the cross?  When we despise, de-humanize and degrade another, are we not just driving more nails into the cross?  Yes, we nail Jesus to the cross…again and again and again…nails.
Luke tells us that as Jesus was being crucified, i.e., nailed to the cross, he uttered these words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  At our worst…when we were driving nails through the very Son of God, even in that moment he prays for our forgiveness.

Paul saw Jesus as doing something else with these nails — transforming them from the worst that we could do into the best that God could do: And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.   Nails…nails…nails.

And so, as we hold these nails in our hands, we hold that which revealed most deeply & fully our heart and the heart of God.  It is only in God’s heart that our heart is remade, refashioned, i.e., redeemed.  It is only in God’s heart that our worst becomes God’s best.  It is only in God that our nails are transformed from instruments of death into instruments of life.


Nails…nails…nails…thanks be to God for nails.

Monday, March 2, 2015

3-1-15


“God, Poverty....& Us.”
“Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” Proverbs 22: 22-23
“For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Matt. 26: 11

Poverty — this one challenge has proven to be the greatest we face, both in Christian and other “faith-based” communities as well as to our larger local, state and national communities as well.  What are we to do about poverty in our own local community, not to mention our country and in our world?  How can we, in a world of such technological achievement which has resulted in a high standard of living for so many, help those who are left so far behind to where they struggle to survive?  You have an insert in your worship bulletin which shares some statistics in case you are like me and until recently fairly ignorant about the depth of the situation.

Recently High Point came out at #2 on a national rating; unfortunately it was a rating as a “food-hardship” community, based upon the number of persons who responded that they had wanted for food in the previous month.  Last week Rev. Carl Vierling had an excellent article in the High Point Enterprise explaining this study and how we came to our current ranking.  He addresses many of the question we might have, so I encourage you to read it.  In case you missed it, also on the insert are some statistics prepared by Carl and our own Dr. Joe Blosser.

What are the Causes of poverty and hunger? 
Poverty is nothing new to humankind; unfortunately neither is malnutrition.  Israel was commanded to set aside grain at the harvest that the poor might be able to glean after the workers.  Further, the Jubilee Year was engrained into their law and tradition: every 49 years they were to remit all debts and return the land taken to the original families.  The purpose was to prevent a permanent underclass from developing.  As we saw in our text from Proverbs God is said to take the side of the poor and hungry; there are over 2,000 scripture verses which speak to the plight of the poor and our responsibility before God.  If we believe the Bible is the word of God, the challenge is pretty clear.

What is disconcerting to so many, including myself, is that we have worked for decades in areas ranging from public and foreign policy to local food banks and community meals, yet the challenge is unending.  Every significant church of which I am aware has ministries such as ours which strive to address this challenge, and yet poverty & hunger persist beyond all belief.  Why can we not eradicate these evils?  What are the root causes which entrench it into our world?

  • A lack of education/illiteracy which results in a lack of employable skills.  
  • A failure of personal responsibility combined with poor decision making.  Often alcohol & drug addiction go hand in hand with poverty.
  • Crime and the environment of poverty are integrally related in cause and effect.  It is quite difficult to ascertain which is first, like the chicken or the egg.  Poverty breeds crime and crime breeds poverty. 
  • Single family homes with children: these are far more likely to  be headed by females and to be living at or below the poverty level.  The number one predictor of whether a boy will grow up to go to prison is growing up in a single family home, headed by a single mother, and living in poverty.  
  • The impact of poverty upon one’s cultural environment or mindset cannot be dismissed.  Poor people tend to have more children, to live in environs of mental illness or depression, and to have an outlook of hopelessness toward their plight.  Poverty becomes an intergenerational legacy for family after family. 
  • Poor governmental decisions and governmental corruption.  Much of the monies we have given, both at home and overseas, have been coopted by corruption.
  • War — with the violence and instability that it creates.  We see this currently in Africa and in the Middle East where millions of formerly stable families are now reduced to living in refugee camps.

The Conditions of Poverty
Poverty brings with it a set of conditions which are incredibly similar from one geographical setting to another.  These include:
  • Less access to medical care and therefore weakened physical condition.  Poor children miss more days of school due to illness or come unable to learn due to an illness.
  • Less access to healthy food choices and education about what to eat.  Children in poverty are more likely to be obese as they eat whatever is cheap.
  • A lowered self-esteem so that one “gives up” before one starts.  Self-esteem is vital to a “can-do” attitude that produces learning and growth.
  • Residing in neighborhoods of violence and imminent danger.  The poor are much more likely to experience crime of all sorts, including violent crime.  They are much less likely to report this crime.
  • Malnutrition, childhood diseases and early death surround the poor in many countries.  

There is a prevailing narrative which I often hear — and I once thought myself — that if the poor would just work harder and apply themselves, then they would lift themselves out of poverty, be proud of their success and go onto greater success.  The challenge to that narrative is that psychologically poverty is incredibly disruptive to a healthy and whole sense of self.  Regardless of the conditions which brought on the poverty, the result is that one feels helpless to do anything about one’s conditions.  The mindset of poverty can reduce one’s ability to strive and cope.

As a seminary student I was about as broke as one could be. I had put everything into one trunk and two suitcases, sold my car, and traveled by bus from Little Rock, Arkansas to Louisville, Kentucky.  (When you spend the night in the Nashville bus station you soon learn what poverty is like.)  However, I never thought of myself as poor, for I had been taught to never do that.  I was just in a temporary situation where my bank account was not as deep as I wanted it to be.  In conversations with others in similar situations I realized how fortunate and blessed I was to have been given the gift of vision.  Poverty can be as psychologically imprisoning as any cell we have seen.  We need to help set people free from this prison.

Possible Cures for Poverty
There is no “one-size fits all” cure for poverty and anyone who says that has never really looked at the issue.  Further, the cure for poverty does not come in throwing money at the situation.  Too often we have done that — it has been the main modus operandi of many well meaning ministries and programs.  However, though the last 50 years have seen a decline in poverty for Seniors (primarily due to mandatory participation in the Social Security program,) the reality is that we are not reducing poverty in numbers anywhere near relative to the amount of monies spent.   There are some actions and changes that I believe if we, the church, would incorporate into our response to poverty and hunger that would make tremendous changes in the lives of those who need a helping hand:

  • Emphasis on education, with tutoring and male mentors for young men.  Until a diploma, a vocation and a career is as valued as an athletic trophy we will see eyes opened for many young men way too late. 
  • Higher rates of education not only increase one’s opportunities for employment and therefore one’s potential income, they also decrease the number of children born in single family homes and therefore break the cycle of poverty that is so endemic in many communities.  
  • Education also applies to issues such as how one handles one’s money, i.e., concepts of budgeting and a disciplined approach to how one spends one’s money.  What would happen if we were to join other churches in adopting one or two families a year and working with them to help them move from dependency and poverty to independence and economic stability?  Our Mission and Children’s Ministry are currently taking the lead in this area.
  • Proclaim and live a holistic gospel which centers on a relationship with Jesus Christ, central to which is an understanding of the values and ideals which following Christ entails.  Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus Christ which results in a change in how we live and relate to God and one another.  Most of us are the beneficiaries of these values, many of which have been incorporated into our culture and which we take for granted.
  • A change in the attitude and focus of the “helpers” is also needed if we are to see progress.  We do not need to come to any situation with the attitude of “do-gooders” or that we are better than anyone we may help.  Economic situation often has less to do with innate ability and more to do with the cultural conditions and environment into which one is born.  When I see people “pat themselves on the back” because they provide gifts at Christmas or turkeys at Thanksgiving, I want to just scream.  This attitude is a central part of the problem: these share because this makes them feel good, not for the other.  If we were really concerned about hunger in High Point then we would be involved in a year round process and not just show up at these appointed times.  Are not poor people hungry other than at Thanksgiving? 
  • Our own Mission Team and leadership are looking at a project entitled the “Greater High Point Food Alliance.”  Dr. Blosser is on the development team whose focus is a better coordination of food resources in High Point.  This is well needed and will, I believe, will be well received by our faith community and others.  We need to join together and increase the effectiveness of our response.

If we are to make a difference in the poverty and hunger situation in our society and world then we must open our eyes and realize the stratification of wealth, i.e., the extent to which relationship and societal status engender wealth and enable wealth to pass from one generation to another.  There is no doubt that many in our own community have had the education, intelligence and drive to rise above what we would consider “modest beginnings” and live in relative economic ease.  I could not be prouder of these and I salute their achievement.  We also must recognize that in many situations, being in the right place at the right time, with the right name and the proper connections, was all determinative in their success.  In private discussions with successful people I have asked them how they made it and the conversation has eventually turned to that one person or persons who gave them a truly golden opportunity.  They are forever grateful — and I am glad for them.

What about those who do not have those opportunities presented to them?  What about those who do not have these connections or those helping hands which provide such significant assistance?  What about those whose medical conditions or innate intellectual abilities provide insurmountable obstacles to rising out of poverty?  What about those who work in careers which are vital and important to our society, but are not avenues to wealth?  I am thinking here of teachers, counselors in our schools and EMT personnel, police and fire department employees?  Often these work long hours and exist from paycheck to paycheck.  Are there ways in which we can work together so as to ensure that such people are rewarded and enabled to live relatively stress free in an economic sense?  

In a recent email conversation with Rev. Vierling he shared that the helping agencies are seeing many, many people need assistance who are nothing more than victims of a changing economic structure.  To quote: “Many that are now seeking assistance have never sought help in the past.   They find themselves in a position they never imagined.  All their life they played by the rules, being loyal to their employer working hard, doing all that is asked, and then one day they are no longer employed through no fault of their own.” 

We need a faith understanding which sees issues of social justice as essential to what it means for us to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  When the prophets called upon people to promote justice in their communities, they were calling upon them to correct the injustices of society.  Remember the Jubilee Year which I mentioned earlier as a part of the Jewish Torah?  Before long the wealthy had manipulated the process and the last I read there was no indication that it had ever been practiced to any significant extent, if at all.  If we are not careful we will also manipulate the gospel so that it fits our culture, rather than changing the culture to fit the gospel.

For instance:  from time to time people will state that the only purpose of the church is to “win people to Jesus Christ.”  Quite honestly, I find that a truncated gospel.  Yes, I want you to be converted to Jesus.  But I want you to be so converted that you see the other as one to loved, identified with, and cared for — regardless of cultural or ethnic boundaries.  The gospel I know is a gospel that changes us completely, from the inside out, so that we see others with the eyes of Jesus — and not with our cultural spectacles.

We must see ourselves as interconnected and our plight as inseparably bound with every person upon the face of this earth, wealthy and poor alike.  Do you remember the story Jesus told of Dives and Lazarus?  In this Dives is presented as a good man — but he winds up in hell.  Lazarus — whom all the listeners would have assumed was a “sinner,” wound up in heaven.  Dives’ sin was not that he hated Lazarus, but that he never saw Lazarus; when he did he saw him as one to do his bidding, not as a brother before God.  When we really get converted, when Jesus Christ really comes in and becomes the Lord of our lives, we will see the other as essential to our relationship with God and therefore as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Then, and only then, will we begin to make a difference in the cycles of poverty, illiteracy, hunger and violence which plague our city and our world.

Amen.

Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
March 1, 2015

Poverty/Hunger Statistics 
  • Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the 41 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (567 million people) is less than the wealth of the world’s 7 richest people combined.
  • Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
  • Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen.
  • 1 billion children live in poverty (1 in 2 children in the world); 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water, 270 million have no access to health services. 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (or roughly 29,000 children per day).
  • Every day approximately 21,000 children in the world die, primarily from poverty or malnutrition issues.

Poverty in High Point 
From Dr. Joe Blosser and Rev. Carl Vierling

  • The poverty rate in High Point is 19.2% versus a state wide number of 15.5%2.
  • Five of the 100 poorest neighborhoods in North Carolina are in High Point3.
  • The poverty rate in these neighborhoods range from 42.2%-59.5%3.
  • 77.5% of the children living in those neighborhoods live in poverty3.
  • 35.7% of males under the age of 5 live below poverty4.
  • 37.9% of females age 15 live below the poverty level4.
  • 39.6% of females 18-24 live below the poverty level4.
  • Poor families by family type4:
  • Married-couple family (27.9%) 
  • Male, no wife present (10.4%) 
  • Female, no husband present (61.7%) 
  • Homelessness in Greensboro/High Point
  • 897 total persons experience homelessness on any given day5. 
  • 101 persons experience chronic homelessness5.
  • 98 vets are homeless any given day5.
  • 327 persons are experiencing a disabling mental health condition or addiction5.
  • 2222 Guilford County students experienced homelessness according to the January 29, 2014 Point In Time Homeless Student Count.5
  • 92 school students are staying in a shelter5.
  •  97 students are living in a hotel/motel or some other place not meant for human habitation5.
  • 1927 students are staying with a friend or family member because their family cannot afford housing5. 
  •  Community Resource Network (CRN)-Emergency Assistance from July 2013 through June 2014.
  • Total rent assistance for 462 households- $138,004.74.  18% increase over last year.
  • Total utility assistance for 4701 households-$947,917.45.  This is a decrease of 25% since last year. 
  • Crisis Intervention Program (CIP) $947,917.45
  • Total households receiving food 12,692.  8.3% increase over last year.
  • Total households served 17,393.  5% decrease since last year.
  • Hunger
  • North Carolina ranks 4th worst in the nation for food insecurity1. 
  • Greensboro/High Point MSA ranks 4th in the nation for food insecurity with Winston-Salem ranked as 3rd worst in the nation1.
  • 19.3% of the population of Guilford County is food insecure —  meaning they are not sure where their next meal will come from1.
  • Of those that are food insecure 31% do not qualify for government assistance1.
  • Greensboro/High Point ranks 2nd (tied with New Orleans) for food hardship in the nation6.  (Food hardship means that at some point in the last 12 months that you did not have enough money to buy food for you and your family.)
  • 25% of those that are at risk for hunger in North Carolina are children1.
  • 31% of the food pantries in North Carolina have reduced the amount of food that they give away and more than 28% of the pantries in North Carolina have had to turn people away because they did not have enough food.
  • There are 24 food deserts in Guilford County with 7 being in High Point.7

 Notes for the paper from Dr. Blosser and Rev. Vierling:
12nd Harvest Food Bank-http://www.hungernwnc.org/about-hunger/index.html: accessed 5/1/13.
2United States Census Bureau-http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/37/3731400.html:accessed 4/2/12.
3The N.C. Budget and Tax Center as published in the High Point Enterprise.
4http://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-High-Point-North-Carolina.html: accessed 4/2/12.  
5Partners Ending Homelessness-http://www.partnersendinghomelessness.org/research/index.php: accessed 7/21/14
6Food Research and Action Center-http://frac.org/pdf/food_hardship_2012.pdf:  Accessed 05/23/14
7Food Deserts in Guilford County, Guilford County Department of Public Health

Monday, February 9, 2015

2-8

The Emerywood Pulpit
“Waiting on God”
Isaiah 40: 21-31
He was a bitter old man — or at least that what he seemed like to me.  He really wasn’t that old — mid-sixties or so — but life had made him feel and look much older.  In reality he was a wonderful preacher, minister and authentic human being.  However, when you have buried your son and every day walk out the front door and see his grave, you can soon grow bitter.  But I get ahead of myself; allow me to digress and tell you the story.

My friend was a Disciples of Christ minister and my mentor in this little backwater area of Northern Kentucky.  Yes, he drank a little too much whiskey and he chewed tobacco on occasion — particularly when we played golf together.  There was nothing fake or sham about Paul… he was as real a human being as any person I have ever known.  He would join “the guys” at the volunteer fire department on Monday evenings.  They loved him and even those who would never grace the door of his church came to him with their problems.

Our lives intersected in 1978 or so when a member of my church took us to play golf.  His grief was very poignant, very real at this point.  The father of four and a small town pastor, he was caught in the throes of deep, deep grief.  Earlier that year his youngest boy had come home from school on break when a friend stopped him in the parking lot of a car wash.  This friend was showing him his new pistol when it slipped from his hand, hit the ground, discharged and hit his son in the femoral artery.  He bled to death 2 blocks from the hospital — nothing could be done to stop the bleeding.  

This son was the apple of his eye.  Bright, articulate and the valedictorian of his high school class, he was studying to be a minister and his father could not have been prouder.  Then came that dreadful day, the first of many as he walked every day of his life out the front door of his home, looked down the street, and there he saw the cemetery and the very grave in which his son lay.
Shortly thereafter I came into his life.  Why, I don’t really know, except for the fact that our common friends thought I might cheer him up and he might mentor me.  They were right on the second thought, if not the first.  Nothing could cheer him up. On the golf course I would turn around, look at him and he would be standing there, in the beauty of a Kentucky fall afternoon with leaves changing and the sun beaming down — with tears running down his cheeks.  “I can’t believe he’s gone” or something like that would mumble from his mouth.  After a while he never had to say anything…I just knew.  He had about him an aura of deep, residual sadness that he never lost as long as I knew him.  I am sure he died with it.

I’ll never forget one morning when I stopped by his home for a cup of coffee after going to the hospital.  It wasn’t yet ten o’clock and he was already awash in tears.  He looked at me with eyes glistening like lightning in their pain and demanded, “Where is this God we worship?  Why hasn’t this God shown up?  Where was he when my son died?”  Of course I had no answer, so I tried to quietly slip away.  I should never have tried that move…it did not work.  “Sit down!” he bellowed.  “Where do you think you are going?  Job had his friends to listen…you’ve got to listen to me!”  So I did and for the next 2 hours or so he ranted and raved, asking questions I could not then nor ever would be able to answer.  I learned more theology and psychology in those hours than from any of the vast theology tomes or Biblical books I read.  Every answer I tried to give sounded meek and tinny compared to the depth of his questions and objections.  Finally I just sat in silence and listened, realizing that no answer was better than the answers I was trying to give.

Where was God that day when his son was accidentally shot and killed?  Was he right to expect God to protect his son?  Where were the guarantees that when we have children nothing bad will ever happen to them?  Who said that as long as we believe in Jesus only good will come our way?

I have found that most people live between two extreme poles when it comes to God’s action.  Some of us assume that God will look after us and nothing bad will ever happen to us.  We live with a sense of entitlement…God owes us this in return for our faithfulness and service.  When God does not show up as we expect, we can become angry and ruthless in our response, feeling bitter and abandoned, wondering if God really cares at all.
Another response to God’s presumed inactivity is to give up on faith and belief all together.  The common doubts that are part of life become overwhelming and we just say, “I knew God didn’t exist.”  Several years ago a minister in our city died at an earlier than expected age due to cancer.  I went to see him and realized that he had become quite bitter, believing that God had deserted him in a time when he was faithfully trying to serve God.  Quite honestly it’s not all that uncommon to see this response, especially from people who have been faithful servants for all or most of their lives.  More than one person has moved from belief to bitterness in wrestling with the absence of God’s love.

Israel is under siege and preparing for the final onslaught of the Babylonians.  God is not showing up to rescue them and they are hopeless.  Isaiah has told Hezekiah as much in chapter 39.  Then in chapter 40 we see the promise of a Messiah to come and restore Israel.  However, this promise is bordered again by frank discussion that what they are experiencing is not God’s presence and salvation, but God’s abandonment.  Israel believes that God has forgotten her and wonders when and where God will show up and fulfill these promises.  She is but as grasshoppers before God; as grass which grows and dies in the heat of the day.

How does God act in human history, in the stuff of our lives?
Sometimes God acts to intervene in a direct and powerful way.  All of us have heard the stories of miraculous healings and such through which God works.  There have been account after account of how God directly answered prayer in one form or another.  Whether the focus was medical, economic or some other such need, the reality is that there are times when it seems as if God has directly intervened.  I will not put these down…I may have even witnessed one or two of these myself through the decades.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen God intervene in a test for a student who was ill prepared, but that’s another story.  What is wrong is to think that direct intervention, i.e., miracle, is the only way in which God works and that if the miracle we seek is not forthcoming then God has abandoned or forgotten about us.  We cannot limit God to one form of working, no matter how much we may desire that to happen.  

Other times God works by interacting with the people of God to bring about God’s will in a particular situation.  Go back and read the Biblical narratives of Israel and we will see that God was always at work through specific people: Abraham, Moses, David — and yes, even the pagan Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor.  Return to the pages of the New Testament and there read the accounts of Paul, Silas and others as they spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  God worked in and through them in ways that even they could not believe. 

Or go look at more recent human history and see people such as Harriett Beecher Stowe, Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen, Billy Graham, William Carey, and the like.  Go read theologians such as A. J. Heschel, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber and even our own Baptists in the South native sons Carlyle Marney, Wayne Oates and Henlee Barnette.  God used these men and women to stir and move God’s people in ways that otherwise they would have never, ever done.  Go, look now and see such women as Lauren Winner, Barbara Brown Taylor, Anne Lamotte and so many others through whom the Spirit of God speaks.  God works by interaction with God’s people who are open and willing to listen and heed.  
Hear me carefully: we are all saved by the grace of God when we are compelled by the Spirit to come to Christ.  However, any human being who has ever come to Christ has also had a human handprint on them…God used someone, somewhere, and somehow to bring that person to faith in Christ.  We do not come to Christ by ourselves…we come as God interacts with God’s people.
God also works in our lives internally, i.e., God acts inwardly in the lives of God’s people.  No, God does not heal every believer who has a life-threatening disease.  Yet, God does work in the life of every believer to take tragedy and make it beautiful, to take what is seen as chaotic and evil and make it into cosmos and life itself.  God does not always heal, but God never abandons.

Too often I have stood beside the bed of a child or young adult whose life has vanished all too quickly before our eyes.  Too often I have walked away from a graveyard or columbarium, having placed into the ground the remains of one whose life was all too short upon this earth.  However, I must honestly say that in my soul searching and wrestling in these moments and days I have found the genuine presence of Christ more real than in any or all of the “good days” that life has brought to me.  

His name was Chuck — and he was all of nine years of age.  He was a big, strapping young boy — full of life and joy.  One day he wasn’t feeling good, went to the doctor and they discovered he had a form of cancer that was virtually untreatable.  It usually went to the brain and once there it was ineradicable.  He underwent chemo and for a year or so did well.  We were able to take him to an Alabama football game and meet Coach Ray Perkins. Then, after about a year I received a call: come quickly for we have a bad diagnosis.  

Arriving in the home I could see that there were no dry eyes to be found.  Chuck was sitting in his recliner and he looked up at me and said:  “Dr. Bob, do something.  I don’t want to die…I am too young to die.”

I had been praying all the way over there, so I reached down inside myself and asked God to give me some words.  “Chuck, you know God loves you.  We really don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know this.  You are in God’s hands…you can live every day to the fullest for God has taken hold of you.  Remember, each person only has today…tomorrow is never promised to anyone.  Just enjoy each day as it comes and we will worry about how many of them later on.”

We prayed and chatted — he seemed to pick up a little.  Chuck died about 9 months after that, at the age of 11.  Just before the funeral his mother said to me, “You remember what you said to Chuck that day?”  Yes, I replied.  “Well, after that he never complained about dying.  He became an inspiration to us all as he knew that no matter what, he would be in God’s hands.”

What was amazing was that this family was not particularly religious or a family of faith.  Yet, in and through this struggle a faith came alive in them that could only have been placed there by God.  Rather than let this experience embitter them, they allowed the Spirit to internally work in them God’s miracle of grace.
When we read these last verses we often think that Isaiah has it backwards: soaring, then running and then walking.  I really don’t think so.  There are times in our spiritual lives when we soar — and those are great.  There are times when we run and in our activity touch so many people — and these are wonderful.  However, there are times when all we can do is walk from one day to the next.  Even in these God is present, even in these times God is at work.

Wait on the Lord…look around…God is at work when and where we least expect.  As Alex Haley’s grandmothers and aunts said to him:  “God may not show up when you want him to…but don’t worry, God will be on time.”