Sunday, March 31, 2013

According to the Women

Luke 24:1-12
March 31, 2013/ Easter
Preached at Prescott American Baptist Church

According to the women something happened that was extremely unusual, out of the ordinary according to the laws and principles of this world. 

We say some unusual things in our Christian faith and we do some odd things. I remember when my daughter was younger she had two good friends who lived next door, two little girls. Their family didn’t go to church. We did go to church and the girls asked if they could go with us. The little one, Ashley, was five years old and she sat in my lap during worship. It was first Sunday, communion Sunday. When I stood to go for the bread and wine I asked her, “Would you like to go up with me?’ She curled her nose up and shook her head, “No! I ain’t drinking no blood!”

I was surprised that she was paying such close attention to what was being said in church. And I have never forgotten her reaction because she made it plain: As Christians we believe some unusual things and we do some odd things. It’s important to recognize how strange our beliefs are. Because we need to come to terms with the strangeness of our faith in order to realize the miracles and mysteries of our faith. 

Early in the morning the women went to the tomb. They were prepared to anoint the body of Jesus with spices and herbs. They expected him to be dead. When they found the stone rolled away, they still expected Jesus to be dead. They were perplexed and then they were terrified by the appearance of two men in dazzling clothes. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

The women were looking for a dead body, intending to pay their respects and be together as they continued to mourn the loss of someone very special in their lives. We know how to deal with death even if we don’t want to deal with death. It comes with a familiar routine.
They were terrified. It can be a challenge for us to accept that the real world contains miracles and mysteries like resurrection. 

I met Elaine Flowers one cloudy cold day in the middle of December, 1983, because I was depressed. I wasn’t happy with myself and I doubted that I was a person of any value. I heard about Elaine by way of our minister at the time. He had heard about Elaine at a ministers’ meeting in town. I agreed to go see her. Being a help to somebody else can sometimes lift the spirits. I went to meet Elaine out of duty (the minister suggested that I go) but with some longing too. I was hopeful that something good could and would happen for me. 

Elaine Flowers was thirty-two years old and she had cancer, a tumor in her pelvic region that had expanded into her thigh. Elaine refused to see a doctor or to be treated in any way other than to pray for healing. She had three children. Tonya was ten, Clay was eight and Brandy was five. Their father was gone by the time I met them. He couldn’t handle the cancer and he couldn’t make sense of Elaine’s faith in God’s capacity to heal her without any earthly assistance. 

They lived in a shack surrounded by a muddy yard. Most of the paint was missing from their house and so were the front steps. Somebody had stacked concrete blocks in front so you could get up to the door. On my first visit I found Elaine on the couch. She was watching Jimmy Swaggart on the television. I would learn to sit with her and listen to Jimmy Swaggart preach. Elaine trusted him and felt inspired by him. 

Elaine had her own church, Apostolic Pentecostal Temple of Faith. They were no longer coming to see her. The people in Elaine’s church said that she was blocking God’s healing power by some secret sin she was hiding from them and trying to hide from God. So they told her they could not be part of her life until she fully confessed. 

My Sunday school class purchased a tree for the family and we decorated it with the kids. We put gifts under it for Christmas morning and brought food for dinner. I entered into a routine with Tonya, Clay and Brandy. I took them to the YMCA on Wednesday afternoons and we swam in the pool. I took them to the park and to see their pick of movies on weekends. I brought pizza to the house, sat on the couch with Elaine and listened to her talk.
She trusted God to do the right thing with her life. She believed that God could be trusted with her life. She expected God to heal her. She searched her heart and soul regularly for any sin that might need to be confessed and she could not find any secrets in her soul. She didn’t think of herself as all that righteous so it wasn’t as if she thought she was perfected. She just couldn’t think of anything she was hiding from God—or me. 

The tumor grew and Elaine weakened. Her mother came from East Tennessee and stayed with her. She joined Elaine in praying for healing. And she took the three children back to East Tennessee with her when Elaine died. She’s buried in Henderson, Tennessee.

It is such an unusual kind of faith that we find ourselves offended by Elaine’s behavior. We want to accuse her of abandoning her children, being reckless with the gift of life itself, blame her for her death by pointing out that adequate treatment might have cured her cancer and made her well again. But what about unusual faith? 

I was there and I can tell you that Elaine expected God to be in control at all times. She believed that God could do all things. And as she was dying she looked forward to being with God. She trusted that God, who had given life to her and to her children, would provide for Tonya, Clay and Brandy.

To tell Elaine’s story is to tell a story of extreme faith. Being with Elaine for two years set me free from my own emotional downward spiral. My faith was not like Elaine’s faith but being with her opened my eyes to see God in deeper ways. Talking with Elaine allowed me to see myself in new ways. And when we stood by the grave I had questions, for sure. But I knew for sure she was not really dead. Her life had taught me that much. Being part of Elaine’s life had helped me to see the difference between the living and the dead. Even as she was dying, Elaine’s faith was vital, compelling and full of hope.

The women came to the tomb to anoint a dead body because they expected to find what they had always found. A person who is dead stays dead. They were terrified—at least for a while—they were terrified. “He is not here, he is risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee…?” 

And they did remember. Not just his words but what it was like to be with him, to talk with him, to eat with him, to see him as he made choices and entered into relationships and tasks. The women remembered. He had made them wonder if something unexpected might happen. He had caused them to feel like their own lives had value. Their own lives might be part of something real and eternal. They remembered.

Leonardo Da Vinci said:
Once you have flown,
You will walk the earth
With your eyes turned skyward;
For there you have been,
 There you long to return.

Once we have walked with Jesus, listened to him, shared our own story with him, shared bread and wine with him and watched him work miracles in the streets of our city—we can no longer walk on the earth without great expectations for love in our lives. We trust the miracles and mysteries of our faith because we trust Jesus. We find ourselves looking upward with hope in our hearts.

I think about Elaine Flowers and I recognize that you might hear her story today and put her in a category as crazy or suicidal. I would think the same thing—except that I knew her, sat beside her, ate in her home and spent days with her children. She expected miracles every single day. Nothing would be too great for God. She trusted Jesus in life and in death.

Every once in a while we meet somebody who walks with us into a deeper faith. Every once in a while we recognize that there is no need to feel alone, anxious or afraid. This unusual faith that we share embraces us in the mysteries-- even in life.

According to the women he is risen. We know this to be true because each day that we live we know Jesus and his redeeming love in our lives.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Matters of the Earth

Luke 19:28-40
Preached at Prescott American Baptist Church
March 24, 2013
We gathered on Ash Wednesday, a few weeks ago, and received ashes on our foreheads—reminders that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. It is true that our bodies are made of the same atomic structure as dirt. If you break our bodies down to the basics—we are carbon and water. 70% of our body is water. Our lungs receive oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. When we die and the air leaves our lungs, the water evaporates—we are dirt.

I look at you. You look at me. We like to imagine there is so much more to us than dirt, water, gases. It’s important for us to recognize the similarities and the connections between us and the other matters on this planet. It’s important because we do have the most complicated brain. Consequently we have the most responsibility when it comes to being inhabitants of the earth.

The universe is 13.8 billion years old. Our home, Earth, is special in that we have this blanket of atmosphere that holds light and warmth around us. We can breathe and plants can grow here. Clouds form, rain falls and evaporation occurs. Cycle after cycle sustains life as we know it. 

David Roberts tells us in his You Tube TEDX Talk called “Climate Change is Simple,” that the Earth’s climate has been stable for 10,000 years. The temperature has remained the same plus or minus 1 degree Celsius. During that 10,000 year period we have known the dawn of agriculture, invented the wheel, come to appreciate the printing press and grown to depend on the internet. 

But things are warming up now and the warming has been going on since the pre-industrial age. It is related to our digging up carbon (scurrying for gas and oil) and throwing greenhouse gases up into that life sustaining blanket of atmosphere that surrounds us. Currently there has been a rise, 0.8 degrees Celsius, in our temperature. 

Scientists say the threshold of danger is 2 degrees Celsius. But they are trying not to scare us with that prediction. The real safety concern will come when the temperature reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius and it is a certainty that we will reach that temperature and blow past it. In fact we will reach 3 degrees Celsius during this century-- just from the momentum of the last century and its green gas emissions.

So, out of curiosity, what will things be like on Earth when the temperature reaches 4 degrees Celsius? Hell on Earth. The sea level will rise at least three to six feet, 40% of the earth will exist in persistent drought conditions, half of the known species will be extinct and hundreds of millions of refugees will be on the move looking for shelter and food.
According to scientists we are on track to hit 6 degrees Celsius within this century.
What does all of this science have to do with our Christian faith and this Holy Week, our journey with Jesus into Jerusalem? 

I believe that Jesus gave his life and love not only for human beings but to redeem all life: algae on the surface of the pond, weeds that border the highway, robins that scurry from worm to worm, old dogs tied to chains in the back yard, rivers choked by urban trash and small gray stones that cry out for life and love to be nurtured and respected forever and ever.

As people of faith and responsible neighbors to our trees, mountains, rivers and icebergs, we can respond in helpful ways to the current climate crisis. It all begins with us and our faith in the one who created us—along with everything else. We have been created in the image of God and that means we have the compassion of Christ, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and the love of God within us. We have the capacity to be healing and redemptive agents in this world.

First we have to care. It begins with caring about the dirt, water, air and plant life.
Bill McKibben (in his Rolling Stone article in July 19, 2012) says, “If you told Exxon that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet.”  The Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson recently said that the company intends to spend $37 billion a year (that’s $100 million a day) searching for yet more oil and gas. There is no intent on the part of the fossil-fuel industry to cease and desist in the destruction of our Earth.

We do not have an engineering problem. Environmentalists and engineers know how to turn this ship around and slow the process, cool the climate. We do not have an engineering problem. What we have is a greed problem. There’s just way too much money being made on oil, gas and coal.  Those who are making the most money and enjoying the most economic power will not be the ones who start the movement to tenderly and respectfully care for and redeem our mother, the Earth.

Chief Seattle said it many years ago and I am sure you have heard it before:
Teach your children
What we have taught our children—
That the earth is our mother.
Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of earth.
If men spit upon the ground,
They spit upon themselves.
This we know.
The earth does not belong to us;
We belong to the earth.
This we know.
All things are connected
Like the blood which unites one family.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life;
We are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web,
We do to ourselves.

Joan Chittister says we should all be on suicide watch right now, our belts, knives, all glass and access to heights removed from us. Until we come to our senses and learn to truly care. Care about life.

For life Jesus walked on into Jerusalem. For life Jesus gave his body and blood. For love of life on this earth- Jesus stretched out his arms and died. 

People and the earth are connected throughout our stories of faith: That colt, tied up and waiting. It knew somehow that it would play a part in redemption’s story. In Genesis we read that because of the sin of Adam and Eve the earth produced thorns and thistles. The prophet Isaiah tells of a time of peace on earth when cows and bears will graze together, a time when lions and lambs will lie down side by side. Matthew tells of a star that used its light to announce that the Messiah had come to earth. The earth shuddered and quaked when Jesus died. The Bible reminds us repeatedly that all life is connected and all creation belongs to our story of faith. 

Here we are, creatures made of dirt and knowing that to dirt we will return. We gather together to worship our God in this nice church building, seated comfortably in pews that guarantee we will not fall on the floor. We trust the wood. Gravity holds us in our seat and promises us that we will not float upward and bump our heads on the ceiling. We trust the physics. Our lungs fill with oxygen over and over again as we worship. We hardly think of it nor do we worry about whether or not we are taking too much oxygen from the atmosphere in this room. We trust the abundance of oxygen to keep us alive. 

It is that trust that will motivate and empower us to be faithful ambassadors for the Earth and its future. We have been given grace and mercy. We know it. That’s why we’re here and willing to walk with Jesus. We want to be part of his redemptive story and love—even though we know the cost. We care. With this one little life we’ve been given—we care. 

As we walk with Jesus this week let’s pay attention to the things we love, the things that love has given us. The soft arms of our partner embracing us and beginning the day. The smell of coffee brewing. The encouraging songs of the birds. Trees budding and flowers blooming. Colored eggs that speak of new life. The eager eyes of children. Music that gives rhythm to our work and play. Food and drink that sustains and excites us. Friends who know us and continue to love us anyway. Our pets who look at us with adoring eyes. 

Praise God. Praise God. Praise God for this place we call home, our Earth, and all the beauty on it. Give the stones a break. Give the earth a chance to survive. Follow Jesus into Jerusalem and give your life for all the things you love.


 Benediction: The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-- the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver, The House Light Beacon Press Boston, 1990.

God Speaks in Many Tongues, Joan Chittister, Benet Vision, Erie PA, 2013
Luke, Interpretation Series, Fred B. Craddock, John Knox Press, Louisville, 1990
“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three Simple Numbers that add up to global catastrophe—and that make clear who the real enemy is” Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone Magazine, July 19, 2012
David Roberts You Tube on climate change:

Learn, Connect, Respond…
Read: “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three Simple Numbers that add up to global catastrophe—and that make clear who the real enemy is” Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone Magazine, July 19, 2012

Watch: David Roberts You Tube on climate change:

Co-sign an open letter to President Obama calling for bold climate action at http://350.Org

Contact and join the local Sierra Club.

Demonstrate against the Valero oil refinery here in Memphis, one of the key players in the Keystone XL Pipeline Project and the main refiner of Bakken crude from the fracked field of North Dakota and Montana.  

The University of Tennessee plans to lease a portion of the Cumberland Research Forest lands held in public trust to private companies for extracting oil and gas through the practice of fracking.
 Sign the petition:

Talk with your family, friends and groups about how much you love the earth. Discuss your love for life and how you can be a faithful servant for life and love.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Extravagant Mother

Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
Preached at Prescott American Baptist Church
March 10, 2013

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is hard to be human. So much is required and our knowledge is so limited. I sit in a circle with women in our county jail two nights every week. I see in their faces and I hear in their voices how lost and forgotten they feel. Most of them have made a series of bad decisions, been in the wrong places at the worst times and chosen to make money or get high illegally. They aren’t bad people. But they are lost in a certain way. And they feel like they are lost so deeply that being found is impossible. 

Mother Teresa lived and worked in Calcutta among the poorest and the sickest people, the forgotten. She said, “The worst disease known to human beings is to be lost and unwanted. Our hunger is not so much for bread and rice but to be loved, to be somebody.”

I believe that we, as people of faith, can assist God’s efforts to redeem the world by telling stories of redemption, stories in which people can see and hear themselves. It is our privilege to tell the old, old stories in new ways so that even the women in our county jail will realize they are included—today—in God’s story of eternal love. 

Once there was a mother and she had two daughters. The youngest daughter said to her mother, “Mom, give me all of the allowance you ever plan to give to me. Give me all the money you plan to spend on my college education. Give me whatever would be mine after you die. Give it to me now. I want to go out into the world and have adventures on my own.”
So the mother gave the daughter what was hers and a few days later the younger daughter went away.

She went into the city where she wandered through the malls and into boutiques, filling shopping bag after shopping bag with all sorts of jewelry, bubble bath, shoes and short skirts. She attended wild and crazy parties in the evening when she could no longer shop. She danced and laughed. She stayed in a fine hotel where the uniformed doorman saw her safely to her room each evening. She ate at restaurants where the napkins were cloth and the servings were small but artfully designed on the plates. She drank only the finest bottled drinks from morning to night. She could see the city and all of its twinkling lights from her pent house window. She slept on silk sheets and her head rested on fabulous pillows. What a wonderful adventure the youngest daughter had!

And then her money ran out. The girl could no longer pay for her room at the hotel. She could no longer afford to shop. She had no money for restaurants, not even a Krystal burger. And nobody invited her to wild parties after her money ran out. The daughter started walking along the shoulder of the highway, dodging the rocks tossed to the side by huge trucks and speeding cars.  She walked on and on, in search of a life for herself. That night she slept in the backseat of a wrecked car in a car junkyard. She sat among the piles of wrecked cars and wished for something good to eat, some place nice to sleep, and a friend who would stay by her side. 

The owner of the junkyard allowed the girl to straighten up around the place, moving car parts and organizing things. In return she was given a blanket, a pillow, coffee in the morning and a biscuit. She ate Kennel Ration with the dogs the rest of the day.

Finally her stomach could no longer stand to eat another bite of dog food. Her back was aching from the lumpy car seat she was using for a bed. The girl thought to herself, “I know that my mother has camping equipment in the storage shed out back of the house. I would be better off to sleep in a sleeping bag inside a canvas tent in my mother’s back yard than to stay here and die of hunger. I’ll go back home, apologize to my mother for how foolishly I have behaved and I will ask if I can mow the lawn and trim the hedges for a sandwich, a cookie and a soda.” So the youngest daughter started walking home.

The mother was standing at the kitchen sink, drying dishes and humming a song when she saw something down at the end of the street.  She stopped drying the dishes and leaned over the sink, trying to see if her eyes were simply playing tricks on her.  Could it be? Her youngest daughter had been gone for so long. The pain in the mother’s chest loosened as she threw her dish towel up in the air and ran outside on the porch to see her daughter more closely. She waved her arms up in the air with a great gesture of joy. Tears of happiness filled the mother’s eyes and she could stand still no longer. She began to run and as she ran her daughter began to run too. They ran right into each other’s arms and hugged each other tightly while they cried. “Mother,” the youngest daughter sobbed, “I’ve been foolish. I am sorry for wasting so much time and money. I want to come home. I will work…”

The mother had something to say that could no longer wait. “I want to throw a party for you! I’ll get the charcoal in the pit and we’ll grill hamburgers, hotdogs and chicken breasts. I’ll order a cake from the bakery and buy six flavors of ice cream! We’ll have punch that will knock your socks off!” The mother hugged her daughter tightly. “Because you were lost and now you are found. We need to have a huge celebration.” The mother went into the house and put dance music on the CD player. Even the dog was kicking up her heels with joy.

Just then the older daughter came downstairs from her bedroom where she had been working on her algebra homework. “What’s happening?” she asked, looking sternly at her mother. The older daughter was the serious type.

“Your sister was lost and now she is found! We’re going to have a big celebration this very night!” the mother exclaimed.  “I’ve ordered a bakery cake and I’m going to the grocery to buy six flavors of ice cream! Can I get anything for you while I’m there?”

But the older sister did not answer her mother. She puffed up with anger and jealousy, swelling into a rage. The mother stopped and looked closely at her oldest daughter. “Come on, now. You are not going to be angry about your sister’s return, are you?” The mother reached out to hug her daughter. But the older daughter backed away from her mother’s embrace.

“You listen to me, Mother.” The daughter spit her words. “I keep my room clean and I save my money. I make good grades at school because I study hard and keep up with all my assignments. I feed the dog and empty the cat’s litter box three times a week. But you have never ordered a bakery cake and gone to get six flavors of ice cream for me. Now this foolish sister of mine who wasted so much of your money and so much of her life has come crawling back here and you throw a big party! I am offended.”

The mother sat down and took a deep breath. She loved her daughters more than any words could say. She wanted her daughters to know that her love was steadfast and unconditional. “I love you all the time. Everything I have is yours all the time. But we have to throw a party for your sister. She was lost and now she is found.”

We traditionally think of the longest of the three stories in the fifteenth chapter of Luke as “The Prodigal Son.”  But this story is not about the child who took his half of the inheritance and went to the big city to spend it irresponsibly. It is also not a story primarily about the responsible child who did everything by the rules and on time. No. This story is about the parent, (the extravagant mother, the compassionate father,) who gives the inheritance of life and love to all her children. 

We can be in exile from the love of God whether we are trapped by being irresponsible or trapped in our self-righteousness and resentment. More than anything all of us need to know that we are wanted and welcome at home. This story is about the kind of love that never closes the door on any member of the human family. 

I think about the women in the circle with me at Shelby County Jail. They have heard the old, old stories and so much of what they hear is about exile and punishment. It is hard to be a human being and it is especially hard to find a way home once a person feels lost. 

As a community of faith we can invite neighbors, friends and family to hear the old story in a new way, a way that includes all of us and invites us to trust love more than we trust our guilt and shame.

This is our extravagant inheritance. 


Help Me Remember: Bible Stories For Children, Elaine Blanchard, Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, OH 2005