Sunday, September 16, 2012

Without Dread

Proverbs 1: 20-33
Preached at Prescott Baptist Church
September 16, 2012

When we were children my brother, Stanley, and I played in the creek down the hill from our home. A small waterway, Sweet Water Branch ran right through the heart of Gainesville. At its deepest the creek was about four feet deep. It widened into the duck pond about four blocks north of us. Sometimes we took stale bread to the duck pond and scattered it for the quacking birds. Elephant ears and ferns hung from the banks all along the creek bed and leaned toward the water. Live oak trees and grape vines were covered with Spanish moss in the wooded area around the creek. Stanley and I made forts in the woods. He was the soldier and I was the cook. While Stanley fought the enemies that threatened our fort, I made salads from rhododendron leaves and lantana blossoms. I dug up roots from the sandy soil and put them on a plate beside bright pieces of fungus and mushrooms. The soldier came in and pretended to eat with me.  Both of us wore cowboy hats back then; we wore cowboy boots and we had cap guns in our pants pockets. 

One day I was busy making salad when Stanley started shouting in the distance. He came back to the fort with a big shopping bag. It was bright blue and heavy enough that Stanley was dragging it along the path behind him. “I found a treasure!” 

And so he had! We dumped the bag on the ground inside our fort and squealed with delight! Money!! A ten dollar bill and a five, crumpled ones. Quarters and dimes. So many pennies. I found two tubes of lipstick. A Bible. Comb and brush. Purple earbobs. A bill fold. An old worn pair of shoes. Handkerchiefs. Socks. A short pencil. A bottle of perfume. We looked carefully through everything so as not to miss any coins or bills. “We’re rich!” Stanley shouted.

“How much money do we have?”

It took a while to gather it together and count it. “Thirty two dollars and eighteen cents!” Stanley crowed! 

“I can buy a red scooter!” I was already riding down First Avenue in my mind, my pony tails flying straight out behind my back. 

“I’m buying a Tonka truck, the yellow dirt-grater!” Stanley danced around. We put the money in our pockets. Then we danced and clapped and shouted our way out of the woods.  There was no place in the woods for spending money. Neither one of us said it but we both knew we were heading for McCrory’s Five and Dime.

Our neighbor, Dr. Abbott, was in her yard and pulling weeds. She looked up from her work as we came by. “What’s all the excitement about?” Dr. Abbott was the grandmotherly type. She had retired from teaching at the University of Florida and she spent hours in her yard, down on her hands and knees, weeding, planting, mulching. She was smart and she turned her smart eyes on us that day.

“We found a treasure, Dr. Abbott! We’re rich!” I boasted. I could already see how amazed Dr. Abbott’s face would look when she saw me sailing by on my new red scooter. “Look at this!” I pulled bills out of my pocket and lifted them high in the air like a prize.

“Treasure?” She was already interested. “Where did you kids find this treasure?”

“We were playing down at the creek and we found this bag!” Stanley took the bright blue bag in both of his hands and lifted it up off the ground.

Dr. Abbott stood up and brushed her knees off. She came over to look inside the bag. She pulled out scraps of paper and looked at them. “This is not a treasure that belongs to you kids,” she said. “This is someone’s bag. She’ll be looking for it. Here’s a name and address right here.”

I was feeling sad and Stanley was looking confused. He said, “No, it’s our treasure because we found it.” 

“It’s not yours to keep but it can be yours to return.” Dr. Abbott said. “I’m going in to call Franny Wells. Her name and address are written here.” She showed us the paper but we couldn’t read so we just followed along, feeling a little bit robbed.

Well, Dr. Abbott made the phone call and then she got the keys to her car. “You kids can ride with me. How about putting that money back in the bag?  I know you want Ms Wells to have her money.” I was kind of sure that I wanted a red scooter but I emptied my pockets of the money and dropped it in the bag. Stanley did the same. 

We rode in the back seat out toward Newnan’s Lake. Dr. Abbott turned off the highway on a muddy road and we rode back into a marshy area. The car stopped and we all walked up to a small house. A woman opened the door just a small crack. “Yes?”

“Are you Franny Wells?” Dr. Abbott asked cheerily.

“I am. And you’ve got my bag there. I left that bag for one minute and it disappeared.” The woman snatched her bag out of Dr. Abbott’s hand and closed the door tightly. We heard a latch turn on the inside. 

The three of us were stunned there on the porch. But Dr. Abbott quickly led us toward her car. Stanley was mad. “She didn’t even say thank you! We could have kept her old bag. She just left it on the ground! Some people might have given us a reward for returning their bag.”

Dr. Abbott started the car and turned toward home.  We sat fuming in the backseat. Half way home, Dr. Abbott turned to look at us while we stopped for a red light. “Kids,” she said, “you didn’t return that woman’s bag so she would say thank you. You didn’t take it back to her so she could give you a reward. You returned what belonged to Ms Wells because you’re the kind of children who do the right thing.”  The light turned green and Dr. Abbott drove on down the road. 

When we got to her house she opened the back door for us. “You understand?” We couldn’t look at her because we did understand and somehow we didn’t even want to hear what she had to say next. “You got your reward, both of you. Now you know that you’re the kind of children who will do the right thing.” 

We stayed away from the creek for a few days, fearful I guess that we might discover treasure that would have to be returned. But somehow that experience has stuck with me. There was an enduring reward for Stanley and me that day. We went to bed with a new understanding of what it meant to be a good neighbor, an honest person. Wisdom lived in our neighborhood and was willing to engage in our educational process. 

Inside each of us lives a mixture of light and darkness, of evil and good. At any point we might be the saint or the sinner. But when our neighbors look at us and reflect back at us the light they see within us—we begin to identify or re-identify with the light and the goodness inside us more than the darkness. 

As children we are so afraid of the monsters that live under the bed. To let my arm slip off the mattress and dangle toward the floor was to invite a nasty roar, sharp teeth and a life threatening attack. As we grow older and mature we let go of our childish fears and we develop new fears: fear of being accused, fear of being misunderstood, fear of being abandoned, fear of living without purpose or goal. We put on our adult clothes and mask our fears with some kind of defense. And along the way we lose touch with the treasure within ourselves, the wisdom that lives inside us, the wisdom that reassures us we have nothing to fear. 

The incarnation was all about reassurance:  a birth on earth and among us, and a life that brought promise to all people. God chose to address our fears and our lack of faith by coming to live among us and to show us who we really are, how significant we are to the one who created us. We are not alone. We have not been forgotten or abandoned. The reward of our faith is this: We can know ourselves as people who have been claimed by Love and filled with Love’s wisdom. We can know ourselves as people who do the right thing. It’s requires practice and none of us do the right thing all the time. But wisdom is always within us and among us to engage in our educational process, our faith building process. 

I had my sixtieth birthday this past week. It is so hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that I am so elderly now. I am among those who have lived long enough to know something of wisdom, to have something worth sharing with the younger people in my neighborhood and in our city. And yet I am so aware of my continued education as I constantly realize how much I have to learn about life, relationships, faith and death.
There is much to dread it would seem. The world is no longer as safe as it seemed when I was four. Mothers no longer let their children go down the street to play, unsupervised, at the creek. 

This last week has been another time of religious extremism and violence in the east and in the west. A Christian nonprofit in the United States created a film, “Innocence of Muslims,” that characterizes the prophet Mohammed as a womanizing buffoon and a child molester. Outraged by this insult, the Islamic extremists have staged attacks against American embassies and consulates in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunis. Australia has had angry protests too. The outrage is spreading.  Hillary Clinton said, “The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob.” 

Wisdom calls out in the streets of every nation. She is unattached to any particular religious belief. She is Wisdom and as such she is universal in her longing for peace and redemption of all life on earth. She urges each one of us toward our own center where she resides.

“Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you.” This wise principle lies at the foundation and in the heart of every religious system. Wisdom lifts this principle of compassion up high in our streets, in our homes, in our literature, in our media—every chance she gets. Wisdom belongs to no particular religion but urges all religious people to live in respect and compassion for one another. 

Today marks the 48th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.The bomb, planted by the Ku Klux Klan, a Christian extremist group, killed four black children, little girls. Just days after the bombing, white lawyer Charles Morgan Jr. spoke to the all-white Young Men's Business Club in Birmingham. “And who is really guilty,” he asked the crowd. “Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States…every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred.” 

Tonight—as the sun sets—our Jewish neighbors and friends will enter the high and holy day of Rosh Hashanah and ten days of atonement.  Our Hindu neighbors and friends will celebrate Rada Stami Festival this week, the birthday of Krishna’s wife. Our Buddhist neighbors here in Memphis are inviting all of us to join them this coming week in several events focused on compassion and peaceful living.  We are not alone in our efforts to honor wisdom. We are not the only ones who are learning how to be people who do the right thing.
We are called to live our faith in the streets and market places as well as in the privacy of our own homes and places of worship. We are called to be ambassadors for wisdom, to remind one another, even when the riots come closer to our streets and churches, when violence comes to our door, that we hold a treasure within us.

We can live without dread because we are the kind of people who do the right thing. We return what does not belong to us and deliver it to its rightful owner. We hold on to the integrity of our own faith while respecting and honoring the faith of all other religions. We are one family, the children of Wisdom. In this life and in the life to come, she calls to us and shows us the way to live in peace and without dread.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Be Opened

Psalm 125
Mark 7:31-37
Preached at Prescott Baptist Church
September 9, 2012

I grew up in Gainesville, Florida. We lived right downtown and next door to First Church of the Nazarene where my daddy was the preacher. I was raised in a home where everything was black and white; there was no gray area. Either something was right or something was wrong. It was right to go to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. It was wrong to stay home from church. It was right to read the Bible and pray every day. It was wrong to smoke cigarettes, drink beer, go to the movies and dance. There were people who did wrong things. There were people I knew who smoked cigarettes, drank beer and went to movies. It was clear and there was no doubt in my mind that those people were going to hell. Some of them were Baptists, Methodists and some Presbyterians. I felt superior, even sorry for them. I could not understand why people would know the rules and understand the consequences and still jeopardize their eternal salvation. I was just glad I was not a sinner. 

There were two things that were of utmost importance in my family of origin: getting to heaven and getting good grades in school. It was clear that church was more important than school but not by very much. Our lives revolved around both institutions.

I loved school. I went to Kirby Smith Elementary and when it was time for me to enter the sixth grade I really hoped I would get Mr. Mac for my teacher. He was the only teacher at Kirby Smith who was a man. I had never had a man for a teacher. I know that Mr. Mac was special. He got out on the playground and played kickball with us during recess. No other teacher did that. The other teachers sat on a bench in the shade. But not Mr. Mac. He kicked the ball and ran the bases, laughed hard and loudly, got sweaty and dirty.

I’d heard that Mr. Mac let the kids in his class do experiments; pour things together in glass jars and make smoke appear. He played a banjo. He brought his dog, a border collie, to class one day. Mr. Mac would be a fun teacher and I was so happy when my mom registered me for sixth grade and I learned that I was one of the lucky kids who would be in Mr. Mac’s class.

I fell in love with Mr. Mac. I learned to love math as a result of loving Mr. Mac so much. He made everything fun. He was handsome and I imagined marrying Mr. Mac one day. 

There was just one problem. And it was a big one. Mr. Mac smoked cigarettes. I saw him in the morning, standing under the arch as the school buses arrived. He stood there puffing and blowing smoke into the air. It was awful. Scary. He was a very smart man so it was hard for me to realize that I knew more than he did about what was right and what was wrong, about how to get into heaven. But I could see I would have to show my teacher the way.

Every fall at First Church of the Nazarene we had a revival. Somebody special would come in from far, far away to do the preaching, somebody who really knew how to scare the sinners into coming down to the altar. And we had a song evangelist come for the revival too. The song evangelist often had a wife and children who traveled with him, extra voices for the Lord’s work. All of them stayed at our house from Sunday to Sunday. It was crowded too what with the preacher, the singers and the Holy Ghost too. I always had to sleep on the screened porch, on the couch, during revival. Made it all that much more exciting for me.

That year the preacher was Dr. Harrington. He was a short but powerful man. The Fulwood family sang for our revival. Mrs. Fulwood played the accordion and Mr. Fulwood played piano. Their daughters, Francis and Evelyn, stood on stools behind the pulpit and sang with their parents. It was the kind of line up that was sure to win souls for the Lord. 

I intended to bring Mr. Mac into the fold. I started inviting him to the revival the week before it started.  I wrote down the name and address of our church and put it on his desk. “You need to come too, Mr. Mac,” I got close by his side before I left school on Friday. “It’s going to be a revival that will bring down a host of heaven’s angels. My daddy says so.” I prayed for Mr. Mac and I urged all the folks at First Church of the Nazarene to join me in praying for my teacher. 

On Monday while we were playing kick ball I reminded Mr. Mac that the revival had begun. “The singing is really special, Mr. Mac,” I hollered at him as he ran by first base. 

On Tuesday I took my tray and walked by the teacher’s table at lunch time. “Mr. Mac, there’s food for your soul over at my church tonight.” 

On Wednesday I wrote my teacher another note and put it on his desk. “I am praying for you.” 

And by Thursday night I was getting worried. The week was getting away. I was standing at the back of the church talking with Mrs. Booth, my Sunday school teacher, when I saw him come through the front door. He was a tall man, olive skin. He had a crew cut and that night he was wearing a brown corduroy jacket over brown pants. His eyes searched the sanctuary for my face. I was instantly thrilled! “Mr. Mac! Come meet my Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Booth! Just make yourself at home, Mr. Mac! I am so glad you could make it tonight!”

He sat in the back on the left where all the sinners choose to sit. Dr. Harrington preached a good sermon.  He told  a story intended to bring any sinner to his knees about a sweet young couple, man and woman, who had just been married. They were heading out of town in their old jalopy of a car with the windows rolled down when they happened to hear hymn singing inside the church as they passed by. So that sweet young couple, drawn by the love of God in the songs being sung, stopped their car and went inside the church. They sat in the back. And when the altar call was given, that young couple just stayed in the pew in the back with the sinners. They hardened their hearts and left when the service was over. That sweet young couple, Dr. Harrington told us, drove out of town and when they got to the railroad tracks on the edge of town the engine in their old jalopy of a car just died right there. The train was coming and they couldn’t get out of its way. Dr. Harrington shook his head with sadness. “Lost, lost. Almost but lost.”  The Fulwoods started to sing. “Almost persuaded, turn not away…”

I looked back at Mr. Mac. He wasn’t coming forward yet. So I stepped out of my pew and went back to stand beside him. I put my arm around my teacher’s waist and I asked him, “Are you persuaded to stop smoking and give your soul to the Lord, Mr. Mac?” 

And Mr. Mac looked right at me just as nice as ever and without any fear in his face. He patted my shoulder and said, “No, Elaine, I’m not. And it will be all right. It will be all right.” 

The next morning I went to school and I saw Mr. Mac standing under the arch while the school buses were arriving. He was puffing on a cigarette and blowing smoke up into the air. I stood and watched him from the cross walk. He was the best teacher I had ever had. And I was wondering that day about all Mr. Mac was teaching me. It was the first time, the first time that I ever wondered: Is it possible that everything isn’t black and white? Could there be some gray area in life? It was the first time I ever wondered if maybe I wasn’t altogether superior to the Baptists, the Methodists and Presbyterians. 

Have you ever had a teacher so wildly dedicated to teaching that he or she took the time to show you the way to be opened? To see with new eyes? To hear with new ears? To speak more plainly so that more people could understand what you have to say? 

Some lessons in life move us toward authenticity. It’s the best teachers in our lives who move us toward being our true selves in a real relationship with God. Nothing legalistic or religious—but open to what is real and personal. It’s the best teachers who guide us in that direction. 

They brought to Jesus a deaf man whose speech was hard to understand. Jesus took the man aside, to a private place. And in that private place Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears. He spit on his fingers and then touched the man’s tongue. Who ever heard of such treatment? Who would stand for such a thing? Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed. And said, “Be opened.” Then the man could hear and his speech was clear enough so anyone could understand what he had to say. My hunch is that this man went from the private place with Jesus into the world with an authentic story of love. He was open not only to healing but also to a powerful transformation.

A few years ago Rita Van Loenen called a taxi from her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She needed a ride. The taxi driver, Thomas Chappell, was late. Rita was furious and she gave him up one side and down the other, calling him names all the way to her destination. And when they arrived she stiffed Mr. Chappell, didn’t pay him or tip him for the ride. 

A few days later Rita needed a taxi and she called. Thomas Chappell got the call. He knew it was the address of the woman who had cursed him and refused to pay. He went anyway. She cursed him again—even though he was on time. She did pay him and Thomas Chappell wondered what made this woman so unhappy.

Thomas Chappell, the taxi driver, could have cursed Rita Loenen and given her the finger. Instead he wondered what would make a woman so cranky and out of sorts. He was delivering her to a dialysis clinic. So he asked Rita, on the third ride, about dialysis. She told him how she hated sitting through long hours of dialysis three times a week. She told him how she hated being so sick, her body swollen with fluid. She told Thomas she was in kidney failure and she needed a kidney transplant. No one in her family was a match. 

Thomas went to the library and read about kidneys, kidney failure and transplants. Then he went to the doctor and got tested to see if his kidney was a match for Rita. The doctor said, “If you were a closer match I would swear the two of you were siblings.” 

Being a kidney donor is a major matter of surgery and recovery. Thomas asked for no compensation. "This opportunity to help Rita has opened me up,” Thomas says. “Being able to give a kidney has put a whole new kind of lift in my boots. I never knew what it felt like to give somebody life and that's what I'm doing," Chappell said.

Rita Van Loenen says the gift from that taxi driver has opened her up too. She is opened to believe in angels on earth. She has quit cursing and complaining. She has been opened up to hear with new ears and speak plainly so that others can understand. 

“Be opened,” Jesus said. Be opened by the teachers in your life to learn new ways to share your faith. Be opened by your worship to wonder about the people in your life, your home, your neighborhood. Be opened by curiosity and grace to hear, to be healed so you can speak clearly and be understood. Be opened and see how much you have to contribute, like a host of heaven’s angels, come down to touch the lives of the people around you.       Amen