Monday, October 11, 2010

duty and heart

Yesterday I preached a sermon on Luke 17:11-19, the Ten Lepers, and in that sermon I suggested that the major theme of the text was not about "giving thanks," as that theme is often lifted from the story. Rather, I see the import relating to difference between "the nine" and their willingness to keep their distance from Jesus: knowing his name and calling out for help, but keeping their distance; going their way, but because Jesus told them to--they were obedient, in other words, but being just obedient maintained the distance; enjoying the benefit of his mercy, but not coming close to him as the Samaritan did. The Samaritan desired intimacy with Jesus, and his praise, his kneeling, his thanking--all of that together comprised the faith that made him whole.

I think that many of us are obedient, but are content to keep our distance. We know the names, how to call out to Jesus, but have forgotten if we ever started how to praise God, to praise as loudly and as urgently as we pray. We do not come close, do not enjoy the intimacy Christ offers us.

What is true for us as individuals is true also of churches. I want my church to come close to Jesus: I want us to know how to pray AND praise, to be both obedient AND thankful. I want us to give to Jesus and this church not just a little of our time, a little of our money, a little of our attention and enthusiasm, but our HEART.

A HEART for Jesus. A HEART for our congregation. The question before us, and especially in this day, is whether we are merely cleansed and on our way, or whether we are in fact WHOLE, made WHOLE by our praise of, our approach and thanks to Jesus...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Data, Lal and Lazarus

This is my opening illustration and my closing from yesterday's sermon on Luke 16:19-31:

One of my favorite TV shows ever is Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I liked the original series, too, of course, with Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy. But I really love the second series in the franchise, with Capt. Picard, Commander Riker, Mr. Worf, Dr. Crusher, Counselor Troi, Mr. Data and the rest of them.

Some of you may know that show, some may not. Production ended years ago, but for those who are willing to stay up till midnight—or who are able and will program their TiVo’s or VCR’s—there are daily opportunities to boldly go where no one has gone before.

The character named Data is an android. He is not so much a robot, but an artificial life form, a kind of living, walking computer. He does not feel, which is to say, he does not have feelings, exactly, but he wants to, is all the time trying to become more human. In one episode he decides that he wants to be a father, and so he goes into his lab and creates another android, a smaller version of himself. She is female and Data gives her the name Lal, which is Hindi for “beloved,” and he begins to teach her about… life. Eventually, sadly, Lal suffers a cascade systems failure…she dies… but before she does she enriches Data’s life, and the lives of all the others.

I tell you that because I want to recount one remarkable scene in that remarkable episode. Data takes Lal to Ten Forward. Ten Forward is like the officers club, the gathering place for the crew, a place of conversation and socializing. Sitting at the bar Data invites Lal to eat something. She does not require food—but Data has learned, and he is trying to teach her, that eating, and not just eating but eating together, is a really big part of what it means to be human.

“Order something,” he says to Lal.

“What should I order, father?” Lal replies.

“Whatever you like,” says Data.

“But how do I know what I like?” asks Lal, and Data the living computer does not know how to answer.

It is a remarkable question, I think. “How do I know what I like?”

We each and all of us might likewise ask, “How do I know what to think? How do I know what to believe? How do I know how to behave?” How do I know what it means to be not only human, but Christian? How do we learn that, for ourselves, how do we teach it to our lals, our beloved, our children? How, indeed.

The key to this text is at the end: they have Moses and the prophets. Let them read them. Oh, no, Father Abraham. They don’t read their Bibles, but if someone goes to them from the dead…

Just as we have the Bible. Let us read it. Together. That is how we know what we are to like, and be like. That is how we know what is just and right. That is how we know what’s wrong with this picture of Lazarus and the rich man. That is how we know there are consequences, blessed and dire consequences to our actions. That is how we know what we know, and how we believe what we believe. That is how we learn ourselves and teach our kids: we have the Bible. We should read our Bibles. Together.

Oh, no, Father Abraham. We don’t read our Bibles. But if you send us a miracle, a financial miracle, a healing miracle, then we will believe and be changed!

If we do not read the Bible that we have, if we do not study together, Father Abraham say to us that we will not be changed even if someone should rise among us from the dead.

Monday, September 06, 2010



I have been thinking about my grandmother—we called her Memie—who lived to be 104. And one week longer.

There are lots of things I remember about her, about the days we shared, just the two of us. She raised me, more or less: my mother was one of the first working mothers in our neighborhood, and my sister had long-since started school. Dad was almost never home, and so there were many days when it was just we two.
Here is something I remember: when I did start to school, Mom and Dad saved my report cards, but Memie saved the pictures I drew—kept them in a drawer in her dresser.

But it is those days before I went to school that I have been remembering of late. Almost every mornings Memie would make me my favorite breakfast—“puppy food” (boiled eggs, bacon, buttered toast, crumbled)—and almost every day, I would write her love letters.

Our house had a den, and in the den was the TV, Dad’s recliner, Mom’s chair, and Memie’s chair and ottoman, on which she rested her legs. There was a fireplace, too, and in front of the fireplace there was a raised hearth. Daddy had this old, black, heavy manual typewriter, with round keys—I think it was a Royal or an Olivetti. Almost every day, after she had cleaned-up the breakfast dishes, Memie would park her crooked frame in her chair to do her needle work, to watch the game shows and soap operas. I would drag the typewriter out of Dad’s study, put it up on the the hearth, sit cross-legged in front of it, roll piece of paper into the thing—and that was no easy task for preschool fingers, getting the paper straight, if I ever did—and then I would clack-clack-clack until I had poured out my heart to her.

Every day that I wrote to her, I wrote her the very same message:

“Dear Memie. I love you. Do you love me?” And then I added this: “ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOP…” All the letters of the alphabet, all of them in caps, first, then again in lower case… and my numbers, too, 1,2,3 all the way to zero..
Then, scrch, scrch, scrch, as I ratcheted the paper a few lines, then clack. clack. clack: “Love, Tommy”

How long it took me to hunt-and-peck that daily missive, I have no idea. I feel sure it took a while. But when I was done I would pull it out of the typewriter, sshhrrrp!, and take it to her. I would stand at her shoulder as she read, and she always read it out loud. Then she would hug me around the shoulder and say, “This is why I love you so, because you are so sweet to me.” And I would say, “I love YOU because you are sweet to ME.”

And so it went, day after day: Memie cooking for Tommy; Tommy writing for Memie.

And whether it would occur to you or not, to wonder, it has occurred to me to wonder if my love of writing, whether e-pistles, letters to you, articles, commentary and books, isn’t somehow anchored just there in those days, there at the hearth and Memie’s chair… if all these years later, all I am doing, really, is clack-clack-clacking-out my love for you, my love for God, in hopes that you, or God, or both, will read what I write, hug me around the shoulder, tell me I am loved…


I remember another day with Memie. Just we two.

It was cold and rainy. And dark. There was no fire in the fireplace, of course, just ashes from the night before and wind whistling down the flue. There was no light on in the den at all, except for a small bulb just above Memie’s right shoulder, by which she could see to do her needlework. She had bad arthritis, and when the weather was cold and wet she suffered. Really suffered.

This one day, I remember Memie asked me to get her an extra blanket and put it on her, which I did, wrapped it up and down around her legs, tucked it in on both sides between the ottoman and chair. And then I tucked myself in next to her as close as I could get.

I don’t know whether I wrote her a letter that day or not… but there we were, and there we stayed, two of the weak ones, two of the little ones, one way or the other, held together by love and sweetness and a small cone of light from a 40-watt bulb, just enough light and warmth to keep the cold and dark and rain at bay.


Just a couple of little snapshots, little pictures of days long, long ago—and I had almost forgotten they were there, stuffed down in a drawer of my brain somewhere. But I am so glad I found them: they are so sweet to my memory, and poignant.

I served her in the ways I could, and she served me… we were sweet to one another, and in that sweet service we showed our love for one another.

That is what service, is, I think. A way of showing love.

And not only a way of showing love, but a way of growing in love, of doing love. Do you remember how the book of James says, “Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works.” Surely that is true of love, as well as faith; that love without works is dead; that love, real and lasting love, is shown and grown and deepened by works, by service.


For the last couple of weeks I have been preaching on Intentional Discipleship… I started with Connect—connecting with God, connecting with each other, and how we cannot be the kind of disciples Jesus called us to be or wants us, for our sakes, to be, apart from each other. Independent is not a Christian adjective.

And then Grow: growth through Study and the Means of Grace. Putting ourselves into position through worship, reading the scriptures, prayer and communion, to receive the spiritual food, the Miracle Gro, we need to become lush and fruitful disciples.

And today: Serve. Serve.

Perhaps it is appropriate that tomorrow, according to the secular calendar, is Labor Day… a day set aside by Grover Alexander and the US Congress in 1894, begun to appease, really, all the angry labor unions whose members had suffered so much during the Economic Panic of 1893, when unemployment was over 18%.

Be any or all that as it may… I have been wondering when work, or labor, becomes service. I suspect it has something to do with the question of why we do it, and for whom. It our labor is done only for ourselves, then it remains labor. But when it is offered more widely, it is service. When indeed it is offered as a sign of love… not just a means of survival, or of growing wealth, but of growing

Intentional Discipleship: Connect, Grow, Serving those whom Christ loves.

Let me tell you one more Memie story. She lived to be 104, but long before that she wanted to die. Prayed to die. She suffered so much… and she asked me, “Why won’t God take me home? I am doing nobody any good; I am just a burden. Why am I still here?”

“You’re here for us,” I said. “Jesus told us to take care of the weak ones, the little ones, the ones who cannot take care of themselves. You are letting us do what Jesus told us—teaching us to serve, and serve others, like you have always done.

Sometimes when I am frustrated at the church, what it is and what it isn’t, I remember that Jesus loves the church: established it, keeps making and remaking it, and that the best gift I can give him, is to love it too, because he does. Looks upon us in mercy, all of us held together by love and sweetness and a little cone of light, as if from a window in heaven, just enough to protect us from the dark and the cold and the rain.

Connecting. Growing. Serving. Those are the ways we are clack-clack-clacking our love for him, and for each other: loving those he loves.

Meanwhile, this morning, as he does so many mornings, Jesus has once again made for us our favorite meal. And that is why we love him so, say our prayers and sing our songs, clack, clack, clack, because he is so sweet to us.

And that is why he loves us so...

Christ our Lord invites to his Table all who love him…

Saturday, September 04, 2010

A Parable

I was in Highlands this last week and partly to counsel a couple I will marry in October. I asked them, as a part of that conversation, what they did when they got mad. She said, "I shut down. I just get quiet."

He says, "And I cook. I figure that if I make us a good meal, whatever it is that is bothering us, we can talk about it over dinner."

She said, "And most everytime, he has made this really good meal for me, and after the first bite I cannot for the life of me remember what I was mad about."

Let all the people say, "Ding! Ding! Ding!"

May it always be for us, too, that coming to the table causes us both holy amnesia and wonderful reunion.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Paul, Paul Simon, Nixon, Augustine, Uncle Kracker

I preached this sermon on Sunday, the first in four on "Intentional Discipleship," and this one was "Connection." The text is Luke 13:10-17. At the end, I read the Roman text (not in the lectionary) and invited people to move about with a prayer and a kiss of peace. It was amazing. Really, really amazing.


Maybe you feel like the woman in our gospel lesson for the morning—or have felt like her—this “daughter of Abraham,” Jesus calls her, who has been crippled for 18 years, unable to stand-up straight or look the world in the face. And if you don’t feel like that orthopedically, maybe you feel like that spiritually—have felt like that: bent, warped, withered in your mind and heart, deeply crippled, and maybe you would love to come to Jesus, would love for Jesus to see you and say to you that you are “freed from your ailment,” whatever your ailment may be…

But there are so many things that stand between you and Jesus, regrets, hurts, even people stopping you from connecting with Jesus and his power, and maybe even people in the synagogue itself, “church” people looking down at you for looking down, leaders in the church fussing about how you come or when you come, or where you come from.

Is that the way you have felt in the church or feel: you want is to be well, connected to God, but you have come to the sad conclusion that the church is not only not a help but even a hindrance to your faith. Lots of people feel that way, sad truth to tell—that the church does not help them connect with God, but in many ways, keeps them from connecting with God.

Easier to keep your distance, remain disconnected, even if it means you stay stooped, hobbled, alone. Have you ever felt that way? Wounded? And not least by the church itself?

Preachers feel that way, too, sometimes, have to work to keep their faith in spite of what they have experienced in the church. What their kids have experienced. What has been said to them or done. I think if we all had the right kind of glasses we might all look at each other, pastors and people, and see lots of crippled folk, lots of hurting folk, lots of folk who wish the church was always and only a place of blessing and peace…

No surprise when pastors leave the ministry, when people leave the church. Too many arguments. Too many hard feelings. Too many rules. Too many grievances, petty grievances.


Does anyone remember the Nixon Administration? Some of you do. I remember once hearing a kind of epitaph pronounced on Mr. Nixon’s presidency, that it was characterized by “grand vision and petty grievance.” Grand vision, and petty grievance. He went to China, virulent anti-communist though he was, and turned enemies into friends. And he went crazy, too, kind of, paranoid and self-absorbed, and turned even his friends into enemies.

Ever since I first heard that description, “grand vision and petty grievance”—and the point was that the grand vision was ultimately destroyed by the petty grievance—I have thought it sounds a lot like the church, sometimes, a lot like some Christians, who in spite of the grand vision of our faith are brought down by petty grievance. The weight of glory replaced by a chip on the shoulder.
No surprise when people stay away.


Sometimes, when I read this story and the part about the leader of the synagogue, who does doubt the healing Jesus did, but fusses about the way it all went down, I find myself thinking of my junior high school math teacher, who did not seem to notice that I got the problem solved, which was unusual thing, miraculous, really, and she should have been happy for me, and for her a little (the miracle occurred in her classroom, after all!); but no, she only noticed that I did not do the problem the way she had outlined it on the board, step by step, and she pointed that out in front of the whole class, humiliated me in what should have been a moment of triumph.

Shaking her head… and listen, y’all: nothing unfocuses your eyes like shaking your head. Shake your head and you may not be able to see at all…
That is the leader of the synagogue, too. Shaking his head. Unable to see what is happening before him. He is not unhappy the woman has come back to church after all these years, and yes, it is good that she got healed—but there are ways we do these things, tested and proven over time, prescribed by God, really, and proven over and over again by our ancestors. These are the ways we gather and worship, this is when and how.

I can imagine that for the synagogue leader there was power, even healing, in the structure, the stability, the consistency of Sabbath and the synagogue service, in undisturbed liturgy…

I can hear myself in the voice of the synagogue leader, have said that kind of thing, too. Lots. This is the way we read the Word. This is the way we sing our songs. This is the way say our prayers, so early in the morning. I have outlined it on the board, just like that! Follow the steps!

I have felt my own head shaking and my eyes unfocusing at experiences outside the norm.

Just like some folks shake their head at the norm, at the form. Folks who have had powerful experiences, don’t want church or religion; they want the Spirit!
Well, I want the Spirit, too, but I trust the historic forms of worship, the same forms that framed the experience of Jesus and Paul and Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley and my grandmother.

So what shall it be? Form or power? Power or form? Shall the twain shall meet?


I find myself wondering what might have happened if the crippled woman and the leader of the synagogue had talked… shared, told their stories and asked their questions. She might have said that she needed Jesus’ touch, an immediate experience of grace to heal her body…but that she was grateful Jesus had come to the synagogue, that it was his custom to attend synagogue for prayers and the liturgy…since Jesus always went to church, she knew where to find him, and she was going to start back herself. If that is what Jesus did, that is what she wanted to do, too.

He might have said that he loved the scriptures, the prayers, the certainty of synagogue service, and especially in a world as crazy and fragmenting as the world can be; that the synagogue was his oasis, his city of refuge, his sanity in a crazy world. But he was glad too when there was energy as well as form, lest it all become dry rote, and even kind of glad that Jesus, good Jew that he was, could shake things up and straighten things up, and her not least.

If they had connected, in other words, both of them frightened, wounded, crippled souls, they might have seen that both of them needed healing, that both of them found healing, one in form, one in power, that they weren’t so different after all, both of them hungering for real worship, real connection with God, and maybe for connection with each other, too.

She had been alone for 18 years! He had be barricaded inside the rules.

If they had quit shaking their heads at each other, they might have found connection with each other in their common desire for connection with God.

See how it goes? Connecting with God, connecting with each other; connecting with each other not just in the ways a new directory or phone tree, can help us connect, a newsletter or webpage—but in deeper ways, hard as it can be.

It is hard to find connection with one another. Not least because We are so used to hiding, so practiced at keeping ourselves safe, or so we suppose, and solitary.

This week I found myself thinking about an old Paul Simon song:

They got a wall in China/It’s a thousand miles long./ To keep out the
foreigners they made it strong./ And I got a wall around me/ that you
can’t even see.

Yep. Lots of walls up in these walls. And lots of times people in here just crack-off each other like billiard balls… think of the green felt as the church, and sometimes folks drop off the table and sometimes they bounce… but rarely do they really connect.

No surprise. It’s hard. We’re hard. So why even try?

I could answer theologically: that the church is the Body of Christ, and that when we are together, together we each of us become and all of us become what God has meant us to be.

I could answer musically: maybe you remember that great line is Uncle Kracker’s song, “Smile”:

“Don’t know how I lived without you, / Cause every time that I get around
you, / I see the best of me inside your eyes…”

That is the gift of the Spirit, y’all, or can be.

God knows not always: sometimes when we get around each other we see the worst in each other, but it need not be that way.

We really can’t live without each other, because Jesus has called us together, and the Holy Spirit has given each of us gifts that are intended to be shared with the rest of us—and so it is when we are together that we any of us can find ourselves, see the best of who we are in each other's eyes, can know who we are.

If we isolate ourselves, though, keep our distance, disconnect –even though all of us have good reason at times—as long as we do that we will have this nagging sense that we are incomplete, that something is missing, that something is wrong… and it is.

God saw that it was not good Adam, or any of the rest of us, to be alone, and so God made us for connection—connection with him (remember how Augustine prayed to God, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts find no rest till they rest in you.”). And God has made us for connection with each other…

And connection with our neighbors, too, but I am going to hold that for three weeks. Just remember, connection with God; connection with each other; connection with our neighbors. That is the way God made us…for connection.


Connection… is the first step of intentional discipleship. Connecting with God, in worship; connecting with each other, in spiritual friendship, hard as that can be, and it is hard… and if you ask me how to do it, how to connect, that I will point to you a bicycle wheel. Consider Jesus the hub, and each of our lives one of the spokes. As we move closer to Jesus, we also move closer to one another. The farther away we move from Jesus, the more disconnected we are from each other.

Romans 16: 3-16. I invite you to look around and see who is here that is a partner with you in the gospel--that you see the best in them because of what they have been to you and your faith. And I invite you to move to that one and give them a holy kiss...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Watch Your Feet

I have been thinking about feet. I am not sure why.

It may have started when I was at the doctor’s office. A woman came in wearing sandals designed to catch the eye—there was a HUGE daisy on the strap—and when I looked, I noticed that each of her toenails was painted a different color. Okay.

A bride-to-be came to discuss her wedding. She had stars tattooed on the side of her foot. “Tell me about that,” I said open-endedly, hoping to unearth a nugget of psychic ore we might smelt me in our counseling sessions with her fiancĂ©.
“It’s pretty,” she said. “Oh,” I replied. EOD.

Last week, when my wife went to the dermatologist to have a mole examined (it was nothing, thank God), he said that the moles she (and others) really needed to keep a watch on were the moles on her feet! Who knew?

Anyway, I have been thinking about feet, remembering how, when God called Abram to leave his father and homeland and work in Ur, to start with his wife Sarai toward a land and a future and a heritage they could not possibly imagine, God said, “Go, and I will show you…”

Abram could not wait for clarity before he mustered his courage. He could find the way ahead only by taking it. Abram did as he was commanded, of course, and Sarai too, and ever since their first obedient steps tired and calloused feet have been a sign and symbol of our faith—outward and visible expressions of hope and trust and grace.

When Jesus called his disciples, whether by one’s or two’s, their feet took them away from home and family and work to traipse after him first in Galilee, then into Samaria (where few Jewish feet willfully ventured), and finally south into Judah and Jerusalem. Later, Jesus declared that with the Spirit’s help their feet would take them back to all the places they had been and to more besides—into all the world—and not just as his followers this time but as his representatives. Their thick-soled feet, as much as his ruined ones, would prove to be beautiful on account of the lengths to which they went to spread the Good News of the Gospel.

Used to, preachers would say if you want to know who you really are, as opposed to who you think you are, take a close look at your calendar and your checkbooks. In other words, look closely at how you spend your time and money. These days preachers should tell folk to check their BlackBerrys (lest they prove what many of their people already guess, that preachers and their counsel are behind the times, hopelessly obsolete).

Frederick Buechner suggests, on the other hand, that people to check their feet, not dermatologically but theologically. Want to know who you really are? What you really value? Just see where your feet take you in a day, or a week, or a lifetime.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Decent Image

I was pleased with this image, used yesterday in a funeral for Jack Covington, a long-time member of our church. I was reflecting on Matthew 11:25...this piece came well into the meditation:

I am thinking again about the text in Matthew—and maybe what first drew me to Jesus words was the part about “heavy-laden.” I have come late to this party, of course, your life in Shelby and Cleveland County and Lafayette Street. There are still so many things I have to learn. And by the time I arrived Jack was already gearing-down, as it were, idling a little on account of his eyesight.

I saw him and Frances at church, mostly, and how faithful they were. Frances told me just this past Saturday, “Now I won’t be there tomorrow, because I would cry all the way through it, but I will be there next Sunday.”

Anyway, Sunday by Sunday I would take Jack’s hand as he offered it—he was not able to find my hand, blind as he had gotten, but he extended his toward the sound of my voice. I could see his hand, of course, and so I would take it, and shake it, kind of cradle it, and chat for a moment or two.

You could find worse images, I think, for our posture before God—all of us extending our hands, perhaps feebly, unable to see who, or where, exactly, we are reaching, just offering our hands toward his Voice; but God can see us, better than we can see him, and he takes our hands and draws us unto himself, near to his heart and at the Last, into his home.