In the presence of Christ

He came into the office talking, and stopped only to take a quick breath, after which he continued sharing the details of his plight.  All was punctuated by pulling up the front of his shirt and revealing the most painful looking herniated intestine that I have ever seen.

Several attempts to direct the conversation and get some sense of what might help stabilize his financial situation only resulted in more details about his circumstances, and more views of the cantaloupe size knot on his stomach.  I wanted to get some idea of what could be done to help him until his disability check started.  He wanted whatever I was going to do to be done right then.

He may have wanted more, but what he got was $25.00 worth of gas.  Back in the day, we used to give folks like him a fill-up.  That policy changed the last time gas prices rose to over four dollars a gallon.  The new policy works well.  I spend almost no time worrying about whether or not someone requesting help deserves it or really needs it.  I would much rather give some who did not deserve it $25.00, than fail to help someone who really needed it because I perceived them to be unworthy of help.

He seemed happy with $25.00 worth of, not gas, but diesel.  I bought him diesel because that is the kind of fuel that one puts in a Mercedes.  Granted it was an old and beat up Mercedes, but a Mercedes nonetheless.  Truly, there is so much story to tell and just not enough time or paper for all the details.

After a quick trip up the street for fuel, I am back in the office reflecting on what just happened.  Without thinking, I find myself somewhere in the vicinity of Matthew 25.  You recall the passage, don’t you?  “Lord, when did we see you in need of fuel and purchase for you $25.00 worth of gas?”  The King replied, “When you bought fuel for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you bought it for me.”  I felt good because I had just done something for the least of these.  I would not have wanted the goat question stuck in my head.  “Lord, when did we see you in need of fuel and not purchase it for you?”  The King replied, “When you did not do it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, is when you did not do it for me.”

So I felt as good as you can feel when you buy $25.00 worth of fuel for someone who needs a lot more than $25.00 worth of fuel.  What I did not feel so good about and, if fact, what was a little disturbing to me, was how desperate this man had been.  The man who had reminded me that to help was to help Christ, had been almost frantic for help, and almost overjoyed with $25.00.  He was desperate and frail, and his desperation and frailty quickly reminded me of Christ in the garden praying for the cup to pass; and Christ on the cross praying for the forgiveness of those who nailed him to the cross.

We like for our heroes to be big, strong and larger than life. We expect them to be able to face down any challenge and overcome any obstacle. Yet our salvation comes not from Christ’s willingness to be a larger-than-life human being, but from his willingness to be a real life human being.  By his wounds, we are healed.  In his brokenness, we are made whole.  It is not his strength that saves us, but with his frail vulnerability that he invites us into the Kingdom of God.  Whether at the manger in Bethlehem, the cross at Calvary, or the fuel pump at Weigel’s, he invites us to embrace him, to touch him, and meet his needs as we experience the power and the presence of the risen Lord.

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The Home Place

How does a place hold memories?  How does a house contain the lives of those who have long since stopped living in it?   I was vividly reminded last week of the power a place can have in our lives as I walked through the yard at my grandparents’ house.

Will, my youngest son, was a baby when Mamaw died.  He will be 16 in November.  I was a junior in high school when Papaw passed away. Yet, being there brought back so many memories.  Everywhere I looked there were reminders of moments and happenings.  They were surprisingly fresh after all these years.

The memories were of mostly ordinary activities.  I remembered how I used to watch Papaw cut the grass and wish that he would let me push the mower.  (What was I thinking?)  Then when he would let me mow, and I would miss spots, how he would fuss at me and tell me to be more careful next time.  I remembered sitting on the carport with him watching him whittle and trying to do it like he did it.  Mostly, I just remembered being with him and doing whatever it was he was doing, or watching him do whatever it was he was doing.  The memories of Mamaw were similar — picking vegetables from the garden, watching her cook, helping her break beans, and all the times she let me beat her at checkers.

Not all the memories were of Mamaw and Papaw.  There were memories of aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and the yard that seemed so incredibly large when I was a boy.  The side yard more specifically could be Yankee Stadium and Shields-Watkins Field all in the same afternoon.  I could almost hear the laughter and cheering even still.

I left the home place with a deep sense of gratitude for the memories that it held for me, and for the visit that had brought so many of those memories back to life, if but for a brief time.  What a gift to have known the people who had lived in that place.

Places have their time.  Children grow up and move away.  Loved ones go to be with the Lord.  The place is still in the same location and it is still special; but it is not the same as it was when the people who lived there were doing the ordinary activities that made it such a special place.  Those children who grew up have gone to other places where they now do those ordinary activities that make up so much of life; and in so doing, they are creating new special places for a new generation.  Like an empty canvas, the places where we live patiently collect the brushstrokes of our lives — the dark tragedies, the bright milestones, and the various shades in between.  They hold the stories of lives in such a way that only we can see what happened there and what it meant to us when it happened.

Places in and of themselves are not special.  What makes them special is what happens there, the lives that get lived, and the love that gets shared.  The stories that unfold and the dreams that are born make a place special.  The people that inhabit those stories and fuel those dreams are what make a place special.

So it is with the places where we are now living.  May our living do something in those places that causes them to be places that remind us of being loved, of dreaming dreams and of sharing our lives with one another.

Not Funeral Food, But Still Good.

Some years ago Kate Campbell graced our sanctuary with her thoughtful lyrics and soulful voice. One of the songs she sang that evening was entitled “Funeral Food.”

Aunt Fidelia brought the rolls
With her green bean casserole
The widow Smith down the street
Dropped by a bowl of butter beans
Plastic cups and silverware
Lime green Tupperware everywhere
Pass the chicken, pass the pie
We sure eat good when someone dies

Funeral food
It’s so good for the soul
Funeral food
Fills you up down to your toes
Funeral food

It is a song that describes the pastoral mystery of food in the face of death, and the sacred necessity that is breaking bread with friends and family in the midst of grief.  In such times, sadness and loss are hanging thick in the air. Words do not come easily, and sometimes there just isn’t anything to be said; but people always need to eat. So the casserole and the fried chicken become icons of God’s love. The food speaks, expressing the love and concern of God’s people, and the never-ending assurance of God’s presence.

Thankfully, I have not been to a funeral this week, but I did go to a surgery last week. My wife, Patti, had surgery on both of her feet last Wednesday. One of you has brought food to the house every day since then.  There has been fried chicken, steak and gravy, meat loaf, salad, macaroni and cheese, green beans, baked beans and rib-eyes for grilling on Mother’s Day. Your kindness has been humbling, your thoughtfulness expansive, and your generosity overwhelming.

These meals have been most helpful during this time. They have made our days more manageable, they have nourished our bodies, and they have delightfully satisfied our hunger. Yet, I have tasted something more in your demonstrations of compassion.  I have tasted bread and juice as if we were in the sanctuary together at the Lord’s table.  Your gifts of food have been a real and tangible experience of God’s grace for me.  You have been the presence of Christ to me and my family even as you have brought Christ’s presence to us.

We live in challenging times, and you know that I am not just saying that in some general sort of way. There are personal trials and challenges in my life, and in yours, still to be faced.  Even so, I am more hopeful today as a result of your vivid reminder of the reality of the resurrection. You are the body of Christ sent into the world to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am convinced again of that truth. Your testimony of concern and care have deepened my faith, strengthened my spirit, and touched my soul. Thank you for your faithfulness to the life and words of the One who said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Waiting to Cry

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:14-17)

These words were written to a struggling group of people. They were a small group relatively speaking.  Their size does not diminish their faith. Neither does it gain them any standing with their neighbors. They are different from everyone else. They are not like the Jews. Rome has learned to deal with the Jews. These Christians are different. They are pushed to the fringes of society and deprive at times of making a living. They are like persons of Hispanic descent living in Arizona. But rather than producing a document to show they are legal residents, they are invited to worship the emperor Domitian. When they refuse –their lives are in peril.

John writes to them to not provide an escape, but to give them hope. John writing from exile on the isle of Patmos understands as well as anyone that following Christ does provide for way around the harsh, brutal hatred unleashed by the powerful on those who are different from them.  John writes to give courage and encouragement to Christians who are living through a time of great tribulation.

No more hunger and no more thirst are words of amazing comfort to a group of people who have been enduring a place in society where their capacity to provide for themselves and their families is limited by those had the power to gainfully employee them. What do you do to provide food, clothing, and shelter? You get a job. You earn your keep. What if no one will give you a job because you are a follower of Christ?  You go hungry. You watch your family go hungry. It is a terrible kind of suffering.

John says, they will hunger no more, and thirst no more.

You can be certain that if there is work, it is the work that no one else is willing to do. It is the work done in the worse conditions. Under blazing Sun and Scorching heat. But if that is the only work that you can get, you take it gladly.

John says, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat

In the midst of such living—stress, strain, fear, worry—doubts and uncertainty must have arisen from time to time. The tension between keeping the faith and surviving may at times have become unbearable. What to do? Would not life be easier if we just looked, acted, spoke, worshipped like everyone else? What to do?

John says the Lamb at the center of the throne will be the shepherd. The lamb of God who died for you, will be your Shepherd. In your uncertainty, let the lamb be your shepherd. In your doubt, let he lamb be your shepherd. He is the one that will show you the way through this time of tribulation. He is the one who will show you the way to God.  He will guide you to the water of life. Water is life. Then and now, we cannot live without.

John’s vision touches his readers in places where they have very real hurts and constant anxieties. He creates an image for them of a time where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, no more scorching sun. He writes of a shepherd who was a lamb who will lead them to the water of life.

And then he adds and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. What must that look to a people in the middle of live a trying life? To people with so many reason to shed tears? To a mother struggling to care for her children? To a father seeking to provide for and protect his family? To men, women, boys, girls, families seeking to faithful to what they know of God while they suffer intense persecution?

What does it look like to you? The idea of the God who took on flesh, dwelt among us and died for us reaching down to wipe away your tears, what does that look like to you? What tears would God be wiping away? How did they get there?

Perhaps more than any other aspect of this scene, this notion of tears being wiped away grabs us. Because we have tears, we cry, we weep. Maybe not today, maybe not right now but we have done so and we will again.  John knows that about the people that he is writing to just as we know it about each other. We do not escape from our trials or our tribulations. For that, John gives us an image of our tears being wiped away by God.

No more tears. In a world that so often has so many reasons to cry, to sob, to weep, how outlandish is it to speak of time when God will wipe those tears away once and for all. In a world crowded with people just waiting to cry is possible that there will come a time when no more tears will be shed?

I am leaning on the fence next to the track waiting for my son’s event.  I am not alone, other spectators are behind me in the stands, some have found a place along the fence, others are moving from one place to another. There is much activity and excitement. The day is absolutely gorgeous.

In the midst of all that activity, I notice that someone is standing beside me. He speaks, “I am not supposed to be here.” “No?” “I am not supposed to be within three hundred yards of this place.”   I want to say “Hey, sorry man, but I am off the clock.” “I am not here working, I am here watching.” I don’t say that. I don’t say that because there is something in his voice when he speaks. He is not just speaking, he is exhaling words. He is speaking because he cannot keep from speaking. He is hurting. I can tell by the sound of his voice. He is about to cry.

So, I listen. They are separated. His wife made allegations. There is a restraining order. She could not make it to the track meet. His daughter called him and asked him to come. That is why he is here, even though he is not supposed to be here, not supposed to be within three hundred yards of her.  He does not cry out loud, but I can see the tears in eyes.

That is the world in which we live. There are all kinds of people out there just waiting to cry. So when John talks about God wiping away our tears we perk up. We know tears. We know the pain, the hurt, the disappointment from which they spring.  A time and place when God will wipe them away once and for all no more tears seems rather delightful, rather joyous. A time and a place that we would like to get to. The resurrection makes such a time and such place a real hope.

How do Women Preachers Dress on Easter?

Early in the morning she is on her way to the cemetery, to the place where he was laid to rest. What is going through her mind as she makes her way to his grave?

Maybe she is blaming herself. Reliving the last few days or even years to try to figure what she might have done to cause his death or what she might have done to prevent it.  Painstakingly, she examines her words, her actions trying to find a clue to help her understand why this has happened. What could she have done that would cause things to turn out differently?

Perhaps she is too scared to be thinking of what she might have done or not done, said or not said. Maybe she is concerned for her own safety.  After all, he is dead. Will they stop with him or will they come after those who followed him?  If she is afraid, her fear is not enough to keep from going to where he is buried. Others may be too frightened to venture out, but not her. Fear or no fear, she will go to him.

She may well be numb. Grief does that sometimes, just leaves a person mercifully numb. With the immense tragedy of the loss floating somewhere beyond the reaches of her mind, she puts one foot in front of the other. At least, she is moving. One step at a time, she goes to him. What will she do when she gets there? Cry some more. Who knows? All she can handle right now is putting one foot in front of the other. She will figure the rest out when the time comes.

She does get there. They all have her there on that first Easter morning, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Some of the details and characters vary, but each of them place Mary Magdalene at the tomb of her Lord that morning.

Weeping outside the tomb she hears a voice. He calls her name. In that moment the first Easter sermon gets written. Later she will proclaim to the others, “I have seen the Lord!”

Every sermon preached this Sunday will in some way expand on what Mary said that first Easter morning.  No doubt, they will be longer than hers. Filled out with illustrations and a poem or two they will be meaningless without the truth of her first Easter sermon.  If her words are not true, there is no church.  A movement that gave hope, healing and meaning to a good many people merely fades into annals of time.  Without the truth of her words, all that could be said is that a good man died. The same thing could be said of many good men and good women over the last 2000 years. Their names are in history books and they are remembered from time to time.

However, because of the truth of her witness, people don’t just think about Jesus from time to time.  Some people think of him every day. Some gather weekly with others to worship him. A good many more find their way to a sanctuary each year to celebrate Christmas and Easter. All the words in all the years since that resurrection morning spoken in all the places were the name of Jesus has been praised are preceded by Mary’s simple, yet earth changing message, “I have seen the Lord.”

I know that there are those who would say that five words do not make a sermon. Yet, on that first Easter morning those five words are the best preachin’ available. If that is all the preaching that happens on the first Easter, some may wonder why God did not arrange the order of things so that those words come from the mouth of a man rather than Mary’s.  If God did not want women to preach, then why is it that on the most significant day in Christian history the most significant message in Christian history, along with specific instructions to deliver it is given to a woman?

The question arises “How do women preachers dress?” Well, the first one dressed like a grief stricken soul whose deep sadness was turned to great joy.   Cloaked in numbing sorrow, she was wearing resurrection life before she was finished. This is to say that what a woman wears when she is proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not really the point at all.  The point is that she has had an experience with the risen Lord,   an experience so real, so life-changing that she cannot help but tell others.

May the church that bears his name have ears to hear the words of his servants, male and female, as Mary’s sermon gets reused again.

Easter, Our Best Day.

Today we remember and celebrate that day in history when our Lord’s tomb was found empty and his disciples were startled to learn that death did not have the last word.  So it is that Easter is always the best day for the church.  Simply put, without the resurrection, there is no church, period, end of story.  A good teacher, a fantastic healer, a compassionate feeder of the hungry, and a tireless advocate for the poor died.  Without resurrection that is all Jesus would have been; and while we might still remember Him, there would be little to celebrate.

Yet, we believe that God was in Christ reconciling Himself to the world in all of the events leading up to and, of course, including Easter. That being the case, Easter is far more than just a day for those who would profess faith in Christ.  It is the event that is foundational to all the ways that we might know God and be known by God.  No one day is big enough to hold all that Easter means to the church nor what it does in the lives of individual believers.

The question arises: If Easter is the defining event in God’s ongoing effort to connect with God’s creation, have you had your Easter yet?  As a body of believers, we celebrate His resurrection. We have remembered His suffering and His victory over sin and death.  Even so, the truth of the matter is that Christ did not simply die for all of us; He died for each one of us.  Easter is always the best day for Christ’s church, but the event itself is an intensely personal matter for those individuals who make up that church.  Frankly, sometimes it is easier to keep Easter at a distance.  Sure, let the choir sing, let the preacher preach, and certainly the children will want to hunt for eggs.

We find it easier living around the surface of our lives most of the time.  We focus our energy and effort on exterior components of our living rather than the interior, living from the outside in rather than from the inside out.  This tendency makes having a personal Easter experience somewhat difficult.  The Easter event did not just happen on the first day of the week.  There was that final meal on Maundy Thursday.  Then there was the betrayal and arrest in the garden.  Before Jesus was finally nailed to the cross, there was a trial and Peter’s denial. Ultimately, there was a tomb with a stone rolled in front of it.  The church tries, sometimes better than others, to remember the events leading up to Easter.  Those events are an important part of the story.

They are also important for us as individuals as we seek to let the reality of Easter inhabit our lives.  The truth is that many of the events leading up to Easter are not filled with overly pleasant memories.  In fact, some of those events reveal the darkness of evil at work in the world, and quite naturally we would rather not linger near them any longer than we have to.

In a similar way, within us there are places that are marked by betrayal and denial.  There are stored away deep within us the transcripts from the trials we have endured, and perhaps even the trials through which we have put others.  Inside of us there are crosses that we have born and may still bear.  To be certain, there are tombs; there are graves where parts of us have died or maybe where we wish we had.

We cannot get to the Easter that would happen within us if we only pay attention to the concerns on the surface of our lives.  We cannot get to it without rising up earlier on the third day to go to those places down in our souls where we expect to find heavy stones marking the dead places within us, only to find that they have been rolled away.  If we don’t go to those interior places, to those hurting times in our lives, to those dying times that we have pushed to the very bottom of our memories, we cannot know whether or not the stones are still there.  We cannot know if they have been rolled away or not.

Christ is risen!  That is the easy part.  The more important question for each of us to ask is whether or not He is alive in us.  Has the risen Christ taken residence in our lives, rolling back the stones that cover the tombs in our lives?   These are Easter questions, questions that we do well to ask, not just on one Sunday morning in the spring of the year, but each day that we seek to follow the resurrected Christ.   That may seem like something of a burden, yet it points us to the image of Christ standing at the doorways of our lives, knocking and waiting for us to open our lives fully and completely to Him.

Part of the wonderful mystery of Easter is that Christ is risen, and whether invited or not invited, Christ is near to our lives seeking to love us anyway He can.

Resurrection

Everything is green. Spring is here. Trees are blossoming and flowers are blooming. Bugs are crawling and birds are flying. The barren winter, such as it was, has been replaced by the sparkle and shine of spring. There are many miracles that occur in spring. Dormant trees and flowers start to grow. Seeds start to sprout. New life seems to emerge from every direction. For a Christ follower, the new life that spring brings forth can hardly help but be a reminder of the resurrection. Yet, all the blooming, budding and blossoming of spring are not resurrection, not the resurrection. While we witness the miracle of life all around us on these warm spring days, these miracles are not the miracle. They are not an empty tomb, a risen Christ nor a living Lord. In as much as spring’s new burst of life reminds of the resurrection and points us toward the risen one, we ought to relish and embrace it. To the extent that it dilutes or minimizes the radical reality of that astonishing Easter morn, we would do well to distinguish between what reminds us of resurrection and what actually is resurrection.

While all of God’s creation whispers about and points toward the resurrection, the resurrection of Christ is an entirely unique event. There is nothing else like it in all of human history. The coming of spring is an annual event that repeats itself year after year. Its wonder and beauty comes forth in a rather predicable fashion each year. As spring approaches, we know to expect certain events to take place, flowers bloom, grass grows and the weather get warmer. The resurrection of Christ is singular. It happened once a long time ago. It does not repeat itself year after year. We have heard about the resurrection but we did not see it. We believe not because we have seen, but because we have been given faith. We believe it as an act of faith.

We believe it not because we have seen it, but we have seen it. No, not the actual, literal event, but we have seen resurrection. We have seen it, not simply in nature’s metaphor, but in our lives. We have seen it in God’s grace-giving, life-liberating, mercy-showing, compassion-extending, salvation-offering way of dealing with us. We were blind, but now we see. We were lost, but now we are found. We were dead, but now we live.

While blossoming flowers and returning songbirds may remind us of Christ’s resurrection, changed lives are the best indicator of its reality. Lives that show mercy tell us that resurrection has happened. Lives that offer salvation let us know that resurrection is still happening. Lives that pursue justice remind us that resurrection is not finished yet.
Lives that live for Christ proclaim to us and to all the earth that God still invites us to repentance and forgives us our sins.