Sunday, August 26, 2012

Highways to Zion

Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18
Psalm 84
Preached at Prescott Baptist Church on August 26, 2012

The last time I preached here at Prescott I talked about intersections and how we find ourselves changed after passing through those inevitable intersections in our life stories. We make choices at intersections. Even choosing to ignore that a choice is required is a choice. 

Joshua looks at the family of Israelites and reminds them of the long journey the people and their ancestors have taken with God. He urges them to choose which God they will serve. Making that choice requires that people have some idea of who God is and what God wants from us. 

The church is made of people of faith. We come together to worship God and we go out into the world to serve God. How we do those things is based on how we imagine God. Our concept of God shapes how we do church. How we relate to the world is a reflection of how we view God. How we journey together into deeper faith as a community shows the world which God we have chosen to serve.

Life itself forces us as individuals and as a community to recognize the intersections and live into the choices and changes. 

In her book, Turning To One Another, Margaret Wheatley reminds us that any human organization that intends to stick together and go somewhere must have a purpose, an agreed upon purpose, that everyone considers the focus, the meaning of the trip itself. The purpose must be important enough to the group that it sustains the members on the journey even if the destination is never reached. A group’s power is in its purpose.

We arrive at our purpose by combining our imagination, our courage and our faith. That’s the fuel for our journey as we define our purpose. It takes us into the light of hope for our future.

St Cyprian said that we can’t have God as our Father until we recognize and claim The Church as our Mother. Now this St Cyprian lived a long time ago, long before the Protestants were ever heard of, before World War II, and before the Sexual Revolution. St Cyprian lived in the Third Century and maybe people appreciated being parented back then. Maybe they liked being told what to do and how to do it, where to go and how to get there. But we no longer like that sort of thing. Certainly the liberal branch of the church resists being parented. The Church exists today in a world where each person believes his or her own understanding of and relationship with God is adequate for the journey of life. People are not as frightened of hell as they are frightened of living a life without purpose.  We could choose at this intersection in time to make the church a place where people come to get what they are most hungry for:  Purpose.

If The Church is going to survive and thrive we need a new way to give our blessing to people’s intelligence and integrity, all peoples’ intelligence and integrity. We need a way to honor the ways people worship and serve their God. We have done a good job of building fine cathedrals and monuments, great expansive structures around the world. We build the building and then we invite people to come inside. It seems like the purpose for the invitation and for the coming into the community is to help pay for the expansive structures: the building, the administration, the publications, the preacher and the obligatory insurance policies. And that isn’t all that attractive to the ordinary person on the street who is looking for purpose in life.

We have done a good job of identifying ourselves by the people we let in and the people we keep out. Some churches are open to diversity in their pews and some are not. The ordinary person on the street knows which is which. And it all seems distant from the ordinary person’s hunger for real purpose in life.

The Church has developed an arrogance that is obvious and not all that attractive to young people. This arrogance has become the hallmark of the church. Here’s an illustration:
I have a friend who is the pastor for a congregation inside a prison. She isn’t the chaplain; she is the called pastor. Her congregation is made of women who will be in the prison for decades if not for the rest of their lives. This is their home. The church in this prison has everything that a church in the free world might have: Sunday school, a piano player, a choir with a music director, a church council and outreach ministries. They have a weekly aerobics class and all the women in the prison are invited to come. You don’t have to be a member of the church to exercise there. It’s the same with their weekly book club. Everyone in the prison is welcome to read and discuss the book.  At Christmas time the congregation raises money and gives gifts to people in need outside the prison. I am altogether impressed with this prison congregation. So I was happy and felt honored when I was invited to be a guest preacher for this inside congregation.  The pastor introduced me and shared a newspaper story about me and my work. She made copies of the story and gave them to the women in the pews. 

The church council had its monthly meeting after I visited. A member of the church council arrived carrying in her hand a copy of the newspaper story about me. This is a woman who is serving a life sentence for killing her husband. She and her sister are both serving life for premeditated murder. She comes to the church council meeting with some angry energy. She looks at her pastor and demands an answer. “Why would you invite this woman to preach in our church?”

My friend was surprised. “I thought you would enjoy her preaching.”

“Look at this!” Pointing at the newspaper story, “It says right here that she lives with her partner in Midtown. That woman is a lesbian! Now why would you let somebody like that in our church?”

My friend answered, “Well I guess I’d let somebody like that in our church for the same reason I’d let a convicted murderer in our church. Now can we get on with the business of this meeting?”

And really?! Can we get on with choosing, worshiping and serving our God? Can we move into a purpose that will actually shine the light of God’s love into the world’s darkness?

The church needs fresh air. We could consider changes. Look at these pews: all in straight lines and securely screwed into the floor. The way we structure the place speaks of stability, division, authority. But people’s lives are circular and unstable. People hunger to connect with each other in a dynamic effort to focus on some singular and significant purpose. People don’t want to sit in a hard pew and look at the back of somebody’s head while one person stands up front seemingly holding all the answers and power.

Would it be possible to choose to remove the pews and put chairs in a large circle? Would it be possible to make changes that would allow the church to discover its purpose?

It’s a challenge everywhere. NO church is immune to the threat of irrelevance. And yet no city is without people who need a place to belong, a community who will claim them and call them into service. The work of The Church is to worship God, love life itself and to serve others toward the end that we might all know justice and hope. This is our general purpose and each congregation is charged to find its own way to uniquely address that purpose. Nobody as well as Nobody’s neighbor wants to live a life without purpose. And no church can thrive without clear and evident purpose.

Finding our distinct purpose doesn’t always require another committee meeting. Tony Campolo, a preacher and prolific writer, tells about a night when he arrived in Honolulu for a conference. He got to his hotel room about 2:00 in the morning and found himself more hungry than sleepy. So he went outside and walked down the street to a bar where he ordered a beer and a sandwich. He was eating and watching television when the door opened and a group of three women came inside and ordered drinks. Tony could hear them talking and it was clear they were prostitutes. They talked, drank and laughed. There was a silence and one of the young women broke the silence by saying, “Tomorrow is my birthday; I’ll be twenty-seven.”

“So?” One of the others growled. “What do you want us to do about it? Bake you a cake and put candles on it?” She snorted and the other woman laughed as if it that was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard of. Tony looked over in time to see the birthday woman shrink with pain.

“Why you want to talk to me that way? Why you have to be so mean?” 

The three women finished their drinks and left before Tony did. He asked the bar-tender about the women. The bar-tender knew them. “They come in every morning about the same time, 3:00 or so.” The bar-tender shrugged. Tony went back to his hotel room and slept. He got up the next morning and spoke at the conference, led a workshop on evangelism. Then he worked on his sermon for the next day.

After dinner Tony went to a bakery and bought a cake. He got candles, balloons and bought a bottle of bubble bath. He put bright paper and ribbon around the bottle. At 2:30 he walked down to the bar with the cake in his hands, balloons above his head and a sack hanging off his shoulder with the gift inside. The bar-tender looked surprised as all the color came into the room. Tony winked and took the cake out of the box, set it on a table by the door. He tied balloons to the chairs at the table and set the bright gift beside the cake. Then he and the bar-tender crouched down behind the bar and waited. 

The door opened and the three women came in—lots of make-up, high heels and short tight dresses. They screamed when Tony and the bar-tender jumped up from behind the bar and yelled “Surprise!” Tony ran to the cake and lit the candles. He and the bar-tender sang “Happy Birthday!” to a very surprised woman. 

“For me?” 

“Yes!” Tony clapped his hands and beamed with delight. “For you! Happy birthday! Put some music on, Bar-tender!  How about a dance? Open your gift! Let’s cut the cake!” The bar-tender and the other women were moving in closer as though their mouths were all set for some cake. 

But the birthday woman was quiet. Huge tears started rolling down her cheeks. “Before we cut this cake, can I ask you a favor?”

“Sure,” Tony handed her a Kleenex.

“Can I take this cake home to show it to my mother? It won’t take long. She lives right around the corner in an apartment. I’ll be right back with it.” 

Everyone stared. Tony answered. “Of course you can. Go on! We’ll be  right here.”

Tony put the cake back in the box for her and she walked toward the door. Then she turned. “Who are you?”

“My name’s Tony Campolo.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a preacher.”

“A preacher!? In a place like this, late at night? What kind of church has a preacher like you?”

“It’s the Church of the Sacred Late Night Birthday Bar- Parties for Prostitutes! That’s my church!” Tony was proud of himself for his quick response.

“No! I don’t believe it!” She almost dropped the cake as she shook her head and stomped her foot. “I don’t believe it because if there was a church like that then I would belong to it.” 
Then she turned and left, taking the cake home to her mother. 

The bar-tender found music on the radio and poured drinks for everyone. Then the birthday woman came back and they all sat together around a table and ate cake. And then it was time to go.  They were all reluctant to leave. Tony invited everyone to join hands around the table. He prayed. He prayed for the woman’s birthday and all her birthdays to come. He prayed for her co-workers and her mother. He prayed for the bar-tender. Early morning light arrived and shined on the little group like a benediction.

The woman hugged Tony before she picked up her cake. “Best birthday party I ever had!” She laughed. “And best church service I ever attended.” 

The Church has got to be about more than keeping up a building and paying the utilities. The Church has more to focus on than who gets inside that building and who gets left out. It’s got to be about more than being conservative and liberal. 

We arrive at our purpose by combining our imagination, our courage and our faith. That’s the fuel for our journey as we define our purpose. It takes us into the light of hope for our future.

One of my favorite old hymns is “We’re Marching to Zion.” I hope folks sing it at my funeral and I hope they sing it with a lot of gusto. And I hope they leave off the second verse: “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God.” Who among us does know God? Our purpose might be to discover adequate humility to admit: We choose to worship a God beyond our knowing. Perhaps we can choose to march on one of the many highways to Zion, inviting all people to join us in the journey and allowing them to point us toward our real purpose.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Living in Love

Preached at Prescott Memorial American Baptist Church
August 12, 2012
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Psalm 23

I am a storyteller and that’s how people know me. I am often asked about stories and storytelling. It’s what I do; I dig up stories, pull them together, dust them off and then find a place and an audience for telling them. It’s what I love to do. I’m going to share the secrets of good storytelling with you…

A good story needs to be set in a place and listeners like to be taken there in such a way that they can see it, feel it and really be there. The place needs to have people in it, people the listener can care about. Somebody in the story needs to have a struggle or pain, some kind of soft spot so listeners recognize themselves in the story. The people in this story place need to move along in some kind of familiar pattern that establishes normal. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk through normal until the people reach an intersection.

Something crosses the path of the people in their normal walk. And everything changes. Maybe the change is small but small can be significant, significant enough to create a new normal. A disease, a new love, a robbery, a college education, a death, winning the lottery…something creates an intersection. And the people in the story walk into a new normal. That leaves room for the listener to imagine what might happen next. The best stories leave room for the listener to imagine what might happen next.

Our lives are stories, this movement from the old to the new. Our stories, our real life stories, are fueled by human emotions. In the beginning we are born.  The place is the bright and sterile labor and delivery room at the hospital. Strange sounds and smells. Such anticipation sprinkled with anxiety and fear, pain, gritted teeth, screaming, tears, blood and absolute joy floods the room as a head arrives and then a shoulder. Then there it is: a baby. 
A person emerges, a new character for the story. A beginning for the baby and an end of a pregnancy for the mother.

Our stories end as we leave this familiar world. Family, friends, the minister gather reverently around a bed and hold hands, wait, sing songs, say prayers and cry as one person leaves the rest of us in the old normal and escapes to a new normal beyond our reach. We cry and grieve because we have been left behind, because the absence created by death leaves us, whether we like it or not, to deal with our own new normal. 

We live our lives from one story to the next and our stories move from one emotion to the next. It is part of the beauty of being human. In writing to the church at Ephesus, Paul encourages the members of that congregation to recognize the flow of their emotions and their life stories. No matter what your pattern has been, in spite of your old normal—there is room for a new normal, new places and people. Life always offers intersections. And Paul reminds us that we make choices in those places. The new normal can be about making room for love, imitating God and recognizing ourselves as beloved children of God. We can choose to be the people in the story who live in the love of God.

If you have not yet read the memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, by Neil White—you are in for a treat. Neil shares his story about the intersection in his life when he moved from kiting checks, writing bad checks, and living as a wonderfully successful man in the field of publishing, to being found out and convicted of bank fraud. It was a new normal for Neil to go to a federal prison for eighteen months.  

His story moved to a prison in Louisiana, Carville. A place surrounded by tall trees and the Mississippi River. The people in Neil’s story were not only other federal prisoners but also people who were living with the disease of leprosy and its devastating consequences. Lost limbs, lost families, the residents of Carville who lived with leprosy were living in a new normal that included being isolated and forgotten in an old brick building near the swamp far, far away. Along with federal prisoners Neil came to know over two hundred people living at Carville who had leprosy. Many of them had been living there seventy and eighty years. The place was a sanctuary for outcasts and a prison for criminals. All of them were trapped in one way or another. Neil came to know his new normal in this place.

Upon his arrival at Carville, Neil saw a man in a second story window. “The man’s face looked flat and when he waved there were no fingers on his hand.”  Neil moved into his room in the prison and was terrified of the people he saw who had no nose, no fingers and no legs. He was infuriated that the federal corrections system would think so little of federal prisoners as to put them at risk with these frightening people and their terrifying disease. 
But the eighteen months went by and over time the prison became a home for Neil. The people became his friends, his family really. The people who lived with the disease of leprosy had much to give and Neil received a new normal, a rich inheritance that allowed him to shed his old skin and take on a new life, a life that included love for the sacredness of life itself, appreciation for the simple gift of living and being loved.  

Society’s most dreaded outcasts had the power to lead this man who had lost everything he owned to a place of redemption. 

Nobody really knows how the disease of leprosy is transmitted, who is naturally immune and who is susceptible. But fear of the disease is universal. People came to Carville, the national leprosarium, whether they wanted to go there or not.  Carville became a leprosarium in 1894 when an old plantation in Louisiana was purchased and turned into the place where people with leprosy were deposited – for good, for life, until their deaths. There is a huge cemetery on the rolling hill behind the old brick building. Many of the graves have numbers and no names. Many of the names on the tombstones are aliases because the people with the disease changed their names in an effort to protect their families from the awful social stigma that came with being anywhere near the disfiguring disease.  
Ella was an old woman by the time Neil White went to prison and met her. A black woman in her eighties, Ella lived in a wheelchair because she had no legs. Neil learned to love her, even cling to her for all she had to give him.

In 1926 Ella was eight years old. White spots on her leg caught a doctor’s attention in the one room school where she was in the third grade. The doctor poked the white spots with a needle and Ella felt nothing. This was the beginning of Ella’s new normal but she didn’t know it yet.

The following week a white man, a bounty hunter who would be paid ten dollars for this job, pulled up in front of the school. He had a pistol in his belt and a big sign in his truck that said, “Quarantine.”  The teacher put her hand on Ella’s shoulder and led her outside and to the back of the truck. Ella’s classmates looked out the windows of their classroom as she was driven away. It was her last day at school.  

The man with a pistol in his belt drove Ella home. He hammered the big wooden sign, Quarantine, to the side of the sharecropper’s house where the little girl lived with her family. Ella’s father came in from his work in the field and spoke to the bounty hunter. “She’s my girl; I’m taking her.”

The family had a holiday meal that evening, the kind of celebration that was rare for a poor family. They ate an entire chicken, greens, biscuits, pumpkin pie. It was Ella’s last meal with her family. 

In a burlap bag Ella gathered two picture books, a copy of Saturday Evening Post, a pair of boots, a few every day outfits and a hand-me-down yellow dress for Sundays. Her father drove a mule-drawn wagon that took Ella and her father out on the road before the sun was up the next morning. They were leaving home, Abita Springs, a town that advertises itself as a place where people can experience nature’s miracle cures by drinking the free flowing water of their artesian wells. Ella’s trip to Carville from Abita Springs would take two full days. 

The father and daughter stopped for a picnic under a shade tree. They picked blueberries and ate them beside a pond. When they got to the Mississippi River, Ella’s father let her take her shoes off and wade in the muddy water. Then the man suggested to his daughter that she put on her yellow Sunday dress. She looked nice when they arrived at the gates of Carville and a man came out to meet them. 

The man alerted one of the Catholic sisters who came to meet Ella and scared the child. She had never before seen a nun. “Big white bird wings on her head scared me stiff,” she would say later—after the old had passed away and Carville had become the new normal. Ella held her burlap bag and looked at her father. He looked at the huge building looming in front of them and nodded toward it. The nun put her arm around the little girl and led her toward the building. She turned at the door and looked back at her father for the last time. Then she walked into the building that would be her home for the rest of her life. She would spend her life with others whose lives had been intersected by a dreaded disease, who had become outcasts by no fault of their own. 

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” the familiar psalm begins. And we can hardly remember the last time we did not want something. We want more money, a vacation, a new car. And as soon as we get what we want we choose to want something more, something new. It is as if our life stories are propelled into the future by what we want and how we get it for ourselves. 

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” We have to wonder if we are being led by the wrong shepherd or if our shepherd’s power has run out over the generations since that psalm was first sung. We want and we want it now. 

Certainly Ella must have figured the good shepherd had turned his back on her when she was imprisoned behind the walls at Carville. If she or any of the patients inside wrote letters to people on the outside the letters were baked in a hot brick oven. Sometimes their letters were scorched so badly that the receiver could no longer read what was written on the paper.

“Ella remembers in the early days when the Coca-Cola distributor from Baton Rouge sent chipped and cracked Coke bottles to Carville so he could refuse to accept the return bottles. He was afraid of public boycott if customers discovered the glass containers had been touched by the lips of leprosy patients.”

In the fifties when an inoculation was discovered to stop leprosy’s spread, the patients at Carville were given the shot and the doors of the leprosarium were opened. The patients could move out and find a new life, begin a new story with this intersection of health. They could enter a new normal with freedom. 

But the scars of leprosy were not nearly as deep in the Carville residents as were the scars of the social stigma that came with the disease. The majority of the Carville residents lived out their lives inside the brick building, protected from the fear and rejection of the outside world. 

Neil White, a man who wrote bad checks and built an empire on his own dishonest behaviors, found the freedom to start a new life through his friendships with people who had leprosy, people who had been shut away and rejected until being shut away and rejected took on its own normalcy and power. He and Ella met in the dining room. They merged their stories and shared their feelings, their needs, their strength and hope. 

Ella taught Neil how to move into his new normal: Live simply, hide nothing and help others. Do this and you will no longer find yourself in prison, even if you live behind tall walls, even if the bounty hunter brought you here or a federal marshal. You can be free if you choose to connect with the love of God at life’s intersections. 

Live simply, hide nothing and help others. The good shepherd comes to us again and again at so many intersections offering us the possibility for a new normal. 

Choose to make your story a grand love story; live in love and be free in your new normal.