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Sunday, May 29, 2011

More Than A Memory

A sermon based upon John 14: 15-31
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Memorial Day, May, 29, 2011

Memorial Day weekend is a time to remember those who have died in our nation’s service; those who have paid with their lives the ultimate sacrifice.   Since 1868 our nation has set aside this time to remember and not forget—those who died the Revolution; those who died in the Civil war; those who died in the World Wars I & II; those who died in the Korean and Vietnam War, those who have most recently died in Iraq or Afghanistan.      

We still live in a world where there are “wars and rumors of wars”.   In this kind of world, we in the church know that remembering is a both a sacred and secular duty.  All the way back to the time of Moses, he called upon the people to “remember, they were once slaves in Egypt” (Deut 15.5).   Also Jesus called upon his own disciples to observe the Lord’s Supper, “In remembrance of me”(Luk. 22.19).  In life, we are not to forget those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and opportunities.

In our biblical text, we have the church’s memory of some final words Jesus spoke before he paid the ultimate sacrifice.   Jesus tells his most intimate followers, “I will not leave you as orphans…. (vs. 18).   Then, just a few verses later, we come across some of the strangest words in the Bible where Jesus bids his disciples both “farewell” and “hello” at the same time:  “You heard me say that I’m am going away, and I am coming to you.  If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father….” (15:28). 

We can only begin to imagine how “bittersweet” these words most have felt for those first disciples.  This sacrifice and death of Jesus was something they could not fully understand at that time, but his sacrific would one day we a death they would come to honor, celebrate and even rejoice about.  Isn’t it the same way we experience the bitter death of those who die and sacrifice their lives for us and for our country?   We are sadden and horrified when they die, but later we come to realize that if they had not died, we could not have the lives we have today.   This makes their lives more than memorable and honorable to us, but it also brings us humility and a reminder of the responsibility we have for their memory.   

One feeling that soldiers often experience when they have a friend or partner died close to them, is not only the question of why were they taken, but it also the question of: Why am I left?”  Remember that dramatic picture Saving Private Ryan, when many soldiers gave their lives to bring one seemingly unimportant private home?   Many men paid the ultimate sacrifice.  Who can forget that scene at end of an aged private Ryan visiting the graves of those who died to save him, wondering “why” they were dead and why he had been left. 

Jesus wants his disciples to know why the sacrifice has been paid for them.  “I have told you this, so that when it occurs, you may believe.” (vs. 29).  He does not want his death to be wasted.  He wants them to have faith, to gain the Spirit, and he wants them to have the peace that the world cannot give.   Jesus does not want his sacrifice and his leaving to be for nothing.  He wants them not just to remember, but to come to know the “gift” of his sacrifice.

Back in 2002, the news program 60 minutes ran a report on the story of Betty Ann Waters, a working mother who sacrificed herself go Law School to free her brother who she believed was wrongly convicted on a murder charge.  Through years of selfless labor and self-sacrifice, this sister found the evidence that did free her brother through neglected DNA evidence.  When her story hit the news, all kinds of Movie producers wanted the rights to the story and recently a Movie was made, staring Hillary Swank, as Betty Ann.   The end of that movie is also powerful, as the newly freed brother sits beside his sister by the lake and thanks her for all she did to sacrifice for his freedom.   Who could imagine a greater gift than having someone who loves you enough, to forget themselves and sacrifice themselves on your behalf?   What the movie does not show, is that 6 months, after being released from prison, her brother Kenny fell off a wall, suffered a brain injury and died.   After his death, his sister Betty Ann wrote:  “It’s sad, but the good part is that Kenny died free and proven innocent. “  

What we all know; what Betty Ann knew and also what Jesus knew: there are worse things than death.  The worse thing is not the death we will die, but even worst is the death we can know while living; when we are not free; when we are not forgiven; and when we are not loved and when we don’t have a life worth living.  Those are the things that are far worse than death itself and they are all part of the spiritual reasons Jesus gave his life for us.  

 Jesus wants us to “remember” those that sacrifice for us.  Jesus wants us to remember him.  He wants to remember that he died and why he died, but there is something else. 

In order to help his disciples “remember” Jesus is going to send them a “counselor” to keep the truth fresh in their memory.   In fact, Jesus sends the Spirit so that the truth of his death will be more than a memory.   Jesus sends his Spirit to move them beyond remembering.  Look at his words in verse 20:  “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”   

I guess you could say this is the “spooky” business of this text.  This talk of Spirit or Holy Ghost coming into our lives has always been misunderstood.  One theologian said that the Spirit is “God’s wild side”.  What he means by that is that the Spirit is the reality of God who gets into us today, causing us to remember, keeping us from forgetting, then also calling and causing us to follow and live our own lives in light of the sacrifice that has been made in our behalf.   The Spirit is the one who comes to us now to “teach us” and ‘remind us” of the most important things that give shape to true life.

Do you remember the Christmas story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol? It is the story of a stingy old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge who has 3 Spirits come to him in the night, that finally convince him to be a better person and to care of the needs of those around him; especially those who work for him and their family.  It’s the Spirit of Christmas past, present and future who finally get to Scrooge, especially the Spirit of Christmas future who shows what will happen when Scrooge himself dies, and everyone is glad he is gone.   It is the realization of dying for nothing and dying as nothing that shakes him to the core and reminds him of his human responsibility to others.

Charles Dickens was right.  In the Bible too, it is the Spirit who guides us to all truth and who even teaches us the truth about ourselves; making us ask ourselves that most important question: not just what am I living for, but what am I dying for?  Does my own life extend beyond myself?  Does my life listen and respond to the Spirit that is bigger than just me?  “But the Advocate (the Spirit) will teach you everything.  He will remind you of all that I have said to you” (vs 26).   Jesus reminds his disciples that it is the “Spirit”, God’s Spirit, that will make his death, his sacrifice, and all his teachings more than a memory, but he will bring them all back and help them make use of them.

Jesus tells us that it is the work of the Spirit to remind us and bring what he said back into our minds, so that we can act upon his words and his truth in live our lives.   Notice how this whole discussion of his leaving and the Spirit’s coming begins in verse 15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”.   Jesus calls his disciples to “loving obedience” as the proper response to his “loving sacrifice”.  

Obedience is a difficult word in our culture that loves freedom and doesn’t want to be indebted or tied to anyone.  But the truth is that freedom is not free and we are all indebted.  Our life today has been paid for by someone else.  This is how we learn that we are not “orphans” in this world.  This is how we know our lives have value and purpose. All our lives are connected to someone’s sacrifice on our behalf.  We find the value and purpose of our own lives out of that loving sacrifice and we respond in loving obedience.   If we forget it, and if we fail to respond with our own obedience to the love shown to us, then we lose the most important part of our life.  Listen to what Jesus finally says to his own disciples about their obedience and love in verse 28: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and WE WILL COME TO THEM AND MAKE OUR HOME WITH THEM.”  

Do you notice that without loving obedience, we lose our sense of love and our sense of home in this world?  Without obedience we start feeling like we are lost in our own skin and we lose the love that holds us together.   And when we choose not to remember, and when we fail to live responsibly and obediently to what we’ve been given, we not only lose the revelation of truth, the Spirit Jesus promises, but we also lose ourselves and all the possibilities of God.

There is a powerful little story of the importance of “loving obedience” about a family where the Father wins a cake at a cakewalk.   When the Dad gets home, the children want to share in a piece of the cake, as they remind him they are all one big family and should share in the good favor.  “Before I let you have a piece of cake,”  the Father says, “let me ask you whether or not you listened to your mother this week?  Did you remember  your chores?  Are you going to try to get along with each other?  Will you make your bed?”  About this time the youngest child speaks up:  “Dad, since you are the one who won it, you can keep the cake?”

When we refuse to live our lives of obedience we are telling God to keep the cake.  This is how we forfeit the joy and fullness that can be ours through our own obedience to God’s gifts.  Jesus says: “Those who love me will keep my commandments…and will be loved by the Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (vs. 21). The full revelation of love comes only when the sacrifices made for us become more than just a memory.  When we, through the power of the Spirit, learn to incorporate those sacrifices, treasuring them, keeping them as commandments, demands and responsibilities for our own lives, only then do we know fully know the peace that gives us courage, assurance, and the sense of being “at home” in this world.  Thus, we start by keeping the commandments of those loving sacrifices made for our lives, and then, the great surprise comes that these commandments of love we have kept and we still keep are now keeping us.  Amen.   

Sunday, May 8, 2011

An Awesome Journey

A sermons based upon Luke 24: 13-35
Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.
Sunday, May 8th, 2011
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

“We’re all gonna get lumps.  We’re all gonna get bumbs.  Nobody can predict the future, but we do know one thing.  It ain’t going to go according to plan.”  “It’s sad”, Neil Pasrischa continues, “but things could happen or hurt you that you just can’t predict…  Your husband might leave you.  Your girlfriend might cheat on you.  Your headaches could be more serious than you thought.  Your dog could get smacked in the street.  Yes, your kids might get in trouble.  Your mom might get cancer.  Your dad might get mean.”    “There could be times when you are tossed down the well too.   There could be times, when you cry yourself asleep….   Times when you have twists in your stomach…. Times, when life shoots holes into your heart.

 In such times, you might wonder, whether or not it’s all worth it.  You may think it’s not.  BUT… Pasricha concludes… ”when bad news washes over you and when the pain sponges and soaks in, I hope you’ll know you’ve got two really big choices:
1.      Either you can swish and swirl in gloom and doom forever,….
2.      Or, you can grieve and face the future with newly sober eyes.”
“Sure, life has dealt me some blows too,” he says, “but I’m lucky because I found a way out.   I had a secret pill to swallow, a magic potion to swirl, and bubbly cauldron to sip from each time I felt down, felt black or felt blue.  And I hope you know that remedy too…”   That remedy, for Neil Pasricha, was found in June 2008, while living in a "dusty suburb" and working an office job as his marriage fell apart.  As everything turned negative around him, Pasricha developed a blog to recall brighter moments.   He wanted to focus on the positive by writing about one awesome thing every night after he came home from work.  His countdown of simple joys of everyday life eventually resulted in 25 million hits at his award-winning website and now two bestsellers, “The Book of Awesome” and the “The Book of Even More Awesome”.   

Pasricha says it was the little, unrecognized, “awesome” things, that gave him the ability of make it through hard times….   Things like, your dog coming to greet you when you come home, or when the person beside you likes the same topping on their pizza that you like on yours and you smile at each other, or when you’re so tired, you fall asleep on the couch and someone comes to put a blanket on you…. Or, something like the Wiggly Worm that got into the official Wedding Royal photograph of William and Katherine, which was given by Prince Harry to a three-year-old bridesmaid to keep her smiling during an overwhelming day.

On the Road to Emmaus, Cleopas and the other disciple (some call Simon), also had an “overwhelming” day.   They were two very sad “disciples” of Jesus, walking along the road and talking to each other about “these things that had happened.”   Nothing was going as planned.   Positive things had turned worse than negative.   Hope was dead.  This “Jesus of Nazareth”, who was “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and before all the people” had been handed over to the leaders to be “condemned to death” and to be “crucified.”    These very bad “things that had happened” and it even worse; one his own followers had betrayed him, all the rest had deserted him, and now Cleopas, and this other disciple are now leaving too.  They are on that long walk of how bad things can get.

This is the “story line” no one wants written in their own life, but the Emmaus road of disappointment, difficulty and disillusionment is a walk we humans will have to make.   We’ve either been on this road before, or we will be on it, or maybe, God forbid, we could be walking on it right now, or we might start on it tomorrow.  

If you look back over just 5 years in history, from September 3rd, 2006 to March 11, 2011, you can get a Hurricane like Katrina in New Orleans, a Tsunami that killed thousands in Southern Asia, a terrible earthquake in a poor place like Haiti, or both an Earthquake and Tsunami in wealthy area like Japan, or the worst Tornado ever in Alabama.”   Being eternal optimists, everything still going O.K., with us, we might still find the courage to sing “Its wonderful world” with Louis Armstrong, or we could muster some simple things to encourage ourselves, but the truth is, life is not always a pretty picture.   Even after Easter, the dark moments can come.  Even after visions of angels, rumors of women, or even convincing talk of an empty tomb, we can still find ourselves on a dark and dusty road.    The kind of world we have to face, can even depress disciples who have been with Jesus, and make us feel like walking as far away as we can and leaving all hope behind. 
C.S. Lewis, the Oxford Scholar who became an evangelical Christian, had a number of particularly painful, dark, difficult events in his life. His mother died of cancer when he was a young boy, he was sent away to a boarding school with an abusive headmaster later declared insane, he was wounded in World War I, and his father failed to visit him in the hospital despite his pleadings.  However, clearly the most painful event was the loss of his wife Joy. They had only been married for a few years.   They were married in a civil ceremony in 1956 and later, after Joy was diagnosed with cancer, married by an Anglican priest in 1957.   Shortly after this second ceremony, a remission in Joy’s cancer occurred.  Joy was then able to progress from bed to wheelchair to almost normal walking.  The next couple years were filled with remarkable happiness.  Joy wrote in mid-1957: “Jack and I are managing to be surprisingly happy, considering the circumstances; you’d think we were a honeymoon couple in our early twenties, rather than our middle-aged selves.” C.S. Lewis commented that he experienced later in life the married bliss that most people experience in their early years. However, it didn’t last. By late 1959, the cancer returned, and Joy died July 13, 1960. Two of the last things she said were, “You have made me happy,” and “I am at peace with God.

Later, in a written diary of his feelings, A Grief Observed, Lewis wrote about how he dealt with his pain and grief.  It was not pretty or easy.  The path was much clouded by fear, doubt, and anger before the gradual lifting of the clouds and breaking through of the sun.   Lewis once wrote: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.  I keep on swallowing.”  Lewis was afraid of going to places that they had enjoyed.  He was afraid of his thoughts about God, and he was afraid of what the future would bring.
Above all, he says, “there was a sense of distance from God,” what the sixteenth century Spanish monk John of the Cross called, “the dark night of the soul” or the sense that the “heavens were like brass” bouncing back any prayer sent heavenward.  Lewis wrote: “But go to Him when your need is desperable, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?   You find a door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence.   

Worse than that, there were doubts about the goodness of God. It wasn’t that Lewis was in any danger of becoming an atheist: “The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”   In his private journal he wrote in frustration and fear:  “that we are really rats in a trap. Or worse still, rats in a laboratory...   Is God a Sadist?’”  In other words, he has all this power to change us and change the world, but he doesn’t use it!  If he doesn’t use his power as he could, why should we care to lift a finger to help him?

Maybe that’s the Emmaus Road feeling Cleopas and the other disciple had:  Since life is so full of lumps, bumps and nothing is going as planned, then why should we care?   Let’s just take the writer’s first choice: “to swish and swirl in gloom and doom forever?”   Why don’t we take that choice?   What would make us want to choose otherwise?

These fellows on the Road to Emmaus would keep on walking in despair, and we would keep on walking too, if it were not for what else happened on that Emmaus Road.    It was something that gave them the ability to process their grief and to see the world through “new, sober eyes”.    Of course, we all know that in this story an unexpected “stranger” comes along to walk with them, who turns out to be Jesus incognito.    They did not recognize him at first, but after he “walked and talked with them” and, as the text also says, after “he stayed with them”, and they “broke bread together” their “eyes were opened.”  This eye opening experience went deeper, as they admitted:  “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening Scripture to us?”   Then, these two once despondent disciples went back to Jerusalem with new, sober eyes, and “told them what had happened on the road and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

The “eye opening” moment of this story is called not just a “religious”, but a “spiritual” experience.   It was a moment of “burning in the heart” that turned a very negative, pessimistic, “awful” journey in life, into an optimistic, positive and “awesome” journey of life.   It was not just a simple ordinary thing, like you find in a stressed-out child smiling over a “wiggly worm” but it was a deeper, transcendent, spiritual experience which transformed a dark and dismal road to nowhere into a dawning, dazzling road toward light and hope.   It was the risen Christ then, yes of course, but he was also the risen Christ alive, well and knowable today; read of in Scripture, met in the breaking of bread, and of course, still able to “burn” fire into our hearts!    

Fred Craddock tells how Jesus showed up in a dark and dismal moment.  Unable to get to a speaking engagement, Craddock was stuck in Winnipeg, Canada in the midst of an early October snow storm which paralyzed the city. Everything was shut down and his host could not even make it to Fred's hotel to pick him up for breakfast.  So, for breakfast, Fred found himself at a crowded bus depot café about two blocks from his hotel. As he entered, somebody scooted over and let him get in a booth. A big man with a greasy apron came over to the table and asked him what he wanted. Not knowing what the café served, Fred asked to see a menu.
"What'd ya want with a menu?" the man asked. "We have soup."
 "Then I'll have soup," he said. Just what he wanted--soup for breakfast. The man brought the soup and Craddock says it was an unusual looking soup. It was grey, the color of a mouse. He did not know what was in it, but he took this spoon and tasted it. Awful! "I can't eat this," he said. So he sat in that crowded café warming his hands around the bowl, railing against the world, stuck in Winnipeg.
Then, the door opened and someone yelled, "Close the door," and she did. A woman came in. She was middle-aged, had on a coat, but no covering for her head. Someone scooted over and let her in a booth. The big man with the greasy apron came over and the whole café heard this conversation:
"What'd ya want?"
            "Bring me a glass of water," she said.
The man brought the water, took out his tablet and repeated the question. "What'd ya want?"
            "Just the water."
            "Lady, you gotta order something."
 "Just the water."
The man's voice started rising: "Lady, I've got paying customers here waiting for a place, now order!"
"Just the water."
"You order something or you get out!"
"Can I stay and get warm?"
            "Order or get out."
So, she got up. The people at the table where she was seated got up, people around got up, the folks that let Fred
sit at the table got up, Fred got up, and they all started moving towards the door.
"OK," the big man with the greasy apron said, "She can stay."
And everybody sat down. He even brought her a bowl of that soup.

Fred asked the man sitting next to him, "Who is she?"
"I never saw her before," he said, "but if she ain't welcome, ain't nobody welcome."
 Then Craddock said, all you could hear was the sound of people eating that soup.
"Well, if they can eat it, I can eat it," he said. He picked up his spoon and started eating the soup. "It was good soup. I ate all of that soup. It was strange soup. I don't remember ever having it. As I left I remembered eating something that tasted like that before. That soup that day tasted like bread and wine," HoHoly Holy Communion.  (Adapted from the Book:  Craddock Stories, Chalice Press, 2001).

Life can be cruel.  Life can be dark.  People can be mean.   Things can get hard.   But when you find people showing and sharing love, being the real and the realized presence of Jesus Christ in the world, a new kind of light comes on, a different kind of burn is felt, and your eyes can refocus and everything looks different, even the worst things that can happen.   When self-less, self-giving, sharing and sacrificing love is present, “what’s the matter” can be turned into a very different matter, altogether.

Last week, I heard Roland Perdue, interim pastor at First Presbyterian, Charlotte tell an interesting story from his ministry in a church in Georgia.    There had been a tragic plane crash and one of his church families was affected.  He rushed to the home to be with the family.   Just after he got there, a young seminary student, a friend of the family, also arrived.   When the younger student minister came in, he did everything wrong.   Everything that they taught in Pastoral Care 101, he missed.  He came in a rush.  He told them “everything would turn out good!”    He even told them, that perhaps “God needed an angel in heaven”.   Then after a much too brief visit and prayer, he said he had other things to do, and then left.   As the pastor was about to apologize to the woman, she turned and commented, “Isn’t he just a wonderful?  His coming here made me feel so much better!

The experienced minister held his tongue and got the message.  What gave her hope was not the words, right or wrong, but it was the “relationship” that she already had with the young student.  He was her friend and just knowing cared enough to come by, made all the difference in her world.

What the Emmaus Road always reminds us, and retells us each time we encounter the story and its truth, is that on this journey we call life, these “relationships”, friendships, companionships, which we maintain with each other along the way make the difference.  These holy, intimate, unbreakable and lasting “relationships” can redeem the darkest and most painful moments of our lives.   When they are present, and especially when “he” is present, the most important relationship of all, our relationship with the risen Christ, then, even the most overwhelming “awful” can be transformed by the awareness of those who remain present with us and restore the presence of “awesome” to our lives.   When we are the living, breathing, loving, and Christ presence to each other, no matter how dark it looks, new eyes can be open and new hope can always return.  

Before I finish, let me just add, that tragically the opposite can also happen.   You can take a good, wonderfully warm moment and then have a person who doesn’t care or who doesn’t love come in and everything can go dark, instantly.  Without a loving relationship or being lovingly present with each other, or most, without being present with God, even the best of life can suddenly go dark and cold.

In this memoir, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson, tells how he came to be a pastor.   He says it all started with his mother.    While her husband was busy working and building his butchering business in Montana, she would hold church on Sunday nights.  She would have church by telling Bible stories.    All kinds of lumberjacks and big, strong miners would come to church hear her tell stories from the Bible.   She was the greatest storyteller.    Eugene especially remembered how she told the story of Samuel choosing David to be King.   David was not chosen based on looks, but chosen because of what was in his heart.   Then she would tell all those big, burly, beat-up, and bruised up men and me too; You are David!  God chooses you because of what he sees in your heart.   

His mother kept telling those stories up until Eugene was six.  She told these stories and conducted church for those men, the only church they had, until one day, a stranger came up to her after worship, opened his Bible and read to her the text that said: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.”   Then, Peterson said, “she kept silent.”  
“I will never know, nor did she then, what took place in the lives of those lumberjacks and miners, when she was intimidated into silence.   But by that time, an artesian spring of song and story was already alive in me. “ (“The Pastor” by Eugene Peterson, Harper One, 2011, p. 33). 

Don’t let anyone or anything take the God story out of your heart.   The great story of the Bible should never be reduced to rules or regulations we think can save us.   Only a living, present, Savior can save us.   Only the living Christ can open the Scriptures to us!  Only Christ can make our hearts burn with loving fire!  Only a real relationship with Christ and with each other can open our eyes and help us see and feel the love that makes life awesome!   Especially on this Mother’s Day, we celebrate that Christ still lives through mothers and sisters or anyone who will be a loving presence to another.  This is how His-story never becomes mere history!   Amen.