Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Friend A.T.

Sometime between 8:00 p.m. yesterday evening and 8:00 a.m. this morning, my friend A.T. died.  Another friend found him when he went by to pick him up for church.  Whether or not his death was intentional; was the result of an accidental overdose; or his body's final response to the chemicals poured into his body over the years.....we may never know.  What we do know is that his addiction finally killed him.

A.T. had burned nearly every bridge at his disposal-some more than once.  A substance abuse habit that spanned at least four decades had taught him every negative lesson that addiction can teach.  There are those, particularly among his family, who may breath a sigh of relief and say, "let's just move on."  But I would hate to have his passing go without some mark, some ripple in the water to give notice.

For this was not all there was to A.T.

A year, perhaps a little less, ago A.T. stepped into the water and I was privileged to say to him, "A.T., child of the Covenant, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Buried with Christ in baptism; raised to walk in newness of life."  That A.T.'s addiction cost him his life did not, and does not, make him any less redeemed by Christ's love.

For weeks after his baptism A.T. would great me before church with a huge grin and a hug.  The smile was no less beautiful because his teeth were new, and his hug was almost like that of a small boy in it's enthusiasm- despite his 50+ years.

Life continued to be hard for A.T.: emotionally, financially, and relationally.  The miracle he had expected in regards to his family was never realized.  They had been through too much.  They would continue to keep him at a distance.....watchful and waiting.  I think A.T. was disappointed that life did not get better; or at least get better quicker.  And his inner-addict stoked the fires of that disappointment.  None of this excuses A.T.'s multiple relapses....but perhaps they are more understandable in the light of all he was dealing with....and dealing with without any real adult years of sobriety to draw from.

The Apostle Paul talks about "this body of death" to which we are subject.  In A.T. that body of death was his addiction, and it finally took his life. 

But I do not believe that this is the last word for A.T.  I will claim, also with Paul, "what shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus."  A.T.'s addiction does not get the last word about A.T.  That word will be spoken, and is being spoken now....somewhere... by the Christ who redeemed A.T. and claimed him for His own.

I do not know if I will have the opportunity to be part of A.T.'s memorial service; or even if he will have one.  But I know what I would say....and I will say it now:

Merciful God, receive A.T. into your Kingdom.  A child of your own redeeming, may the wounds of this life be healed and may he come to final peace in your mercy.  May he come to know in the deepest part of himself Your great love and realize in ways he was never able to in this life that in Your goodness he was born, by your watchfulness he was kept all the day long.....and now in Your endless, boundless love and mercy may he be redeemed and made finally whole.

I trust that God's final word about A.T. will be love; and into that Love I release my friend.

Shalom A.T.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

One Lamb At A Time

I am exhausted!  Any of you who have ever worked with Vacation Bible School will know just how I feel.  Whew!  There's something about 70 children under the age of 12 that will wear you down to a nub in a heart beat.  But Skye Hallman and her faithful band of volunteers (including, don't forget, Ralph Manuel, Minister of Music) made it all come together.

Now I cheated a little and used the scripture for this week as one of the Bible stories that we dealt with in our Bible Story Time.   So this week's blog and this week's sermon have been strongly influence by the kids from Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis.

The story is the first of three parables that Jesus tells in Luke 15.  It is about the shepherd that goes out in search of his lost sheep. 

To begin with, when Jesus asks the question, "if you have 100 sheep and you lose one, don't you leave the 99 and go after the single sheep?" it's a shocking question.  If you have 100 sheep you hire someone to look after them; and if they lose one, they jolly well pay for the loss; but you're not particularly concerned about that particular sheep.  Yet Jesus gives us a picture of God who is intimately connected to God's sheep and who cares about each individual who strays and is lost.

I have a friend who considers himself an agnostic.  He says to me, "I just find it impossible to believe in a God who is so intimately involved with each of us."  He's not the only one.  One the one hand, many of us believe in a God who cares for us individually and wants to "get us saved"; but have trouble dealing with issues of justice causes or global hunger.  On the other hand, some folks are very committed to the issues of global justice, but have trouble with the intimacy of God that they've been presented with....often because God has been presented as someone holding them under a magnifying glass to watch when they mess up so He can smack them for it.

Jesus gives us a different picture.  It is of a God who loves the whole 'flock'.....one lamb at a time.  A good who will bring justice (for sheep that sounds like the psalm about 'green pastures and still waters) one lamb at a time.  It is because God loves us each so much in our particularity, our individuality that God pursues mercy and justice in our lives and world; and this is why he calls us to work for these things a "laborers together with God" having "been given this ministry of reconciliation.

God isn't like Lucy Van Pelt from Peanuts who used to say, "I love humanity, it's people I can't stand."  God loves people....specific, individual, particular, peculiar people.  And because God loves us, God will bring in the Kingdom that will represent a new heaven and a new earth......one lamb at a time.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Stalked By A Parable

It seems that I am once again being "stalked" by Jesus' parable in Luke 15:11-32.

At my new Interim at Heritage Baptist in Annapolis, I chose this for the Father's Day text for my sermon.  And when I sat down to work on the sermon, the parable (like many of Jesus' stories) rose up to say, "I've got more to say to you than you've found here before."  Frankly, this is as it should be.  Reading, or listening to, Jesus over our lifespan should bring new understandings from the same stories.  But still.......from a personal point of view, it's sometimes as though a bear skin rug that you've gotten very used to just lying there suddenly got up and decided it wanted to challenge you to a wrestling match.

The parable I'm talking about here is the one commonly referred to as the "Prodigal Son."  For a long time I've thought that this is an inappropriate name for the parable.  There are two prodigals in this story.  The elder son is prodigal as well.  Twice in this story he fails in his socially prescribed role in that Palestinian culture as the elder son.  (I'll leave that for next week since I'm going to spend two weeks on this parable in sermons, but it is worth noting that this son fails as well).

The main figure in this story though is the Father.  Jesus creates a thinly veiled metaphor for God in this character and then has him do everything that his audience would not expect him to do.  He tolerates the behavior of both of his sons.  He divides his wealth between them prior to his death.  He allows the youngest to sell off the land and leave (this really bothers me at this reading, by the way).  He then spends his evenings pacing the porch looking down the road and longing for his son's return.  He runs out to meet him (no Palestinian patriarch runs anywhere).  He throws himself between the boy and the neighbors who would have lined the road to throw things and spit on him.  He gives him robe, sandals and ring that identify him as still his son.  Then he throws a party to make sure everyone knows that this boy is back in the community and should be accepted.  When the elder son refuses to help host the party (a social demand) and thereby insults the Father just as much as the youngest had, the Father goes out to reason with him.  And there the story ends.

One of the things that is easily missed because we are not that familiar with the cultural context of the story is the impact of all of these behaviors on the community.  Life in the ancient near eastern village was not lived in isolation.  The village was small, homes pushed together, surrounded by the land which (we gather from the story) was owned by the Father.  The villagers' livelihood depended on this land.  Land that the son sold off at yard sale rates for the quick cash to leave.

That the Father allowed this to take place is disturbing.  But so, for many of us who have struggled with the issues of evil and suffering, is the fact that God continues to allow them to take place.  Innocents are wounded everyday by random illness and/or the actions of others.  You can pick your own example.

The "sons and daughters" of God continue to refuse to acknowledge or welcome one another.  We label (and libel) one another so that we can claim our right as "good" people to reject the "other" and do them violence.  From nations to political parties to denominations to the kids at the lunch room table.....we do it over and over.  Why does God let us keep doing it?

I think the answer, or at least part of it, is found in the opening line, "there was a man who had two sons."  To have a creation that can live in relationship with it's creator; people "created in [God's] own image" demands Free Will.  There is no other way.  God does not want robots, or slaves, or zombies.  God wants children who live in relationship with God and with one another.  I did not expect this question to show up in this parable.  Then it did.  Suddenly the parable became so much wider and deeper.

God, it seems, will keep on giving us this freedom.  God will also keep on pacing the front porch looking down the road for us to come home.  And God will keep running down the road to meet us; throwing dignity to the wind.  And God will continue to let us refuse to welcome our brothers and sisters home.  Because, at least this side of the river, for "thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" to take place means that we have got to do something.

What would it look like if we quit 'selling off' creation for the quick buck?  What would it look like if we quit refusing to acknowledge our brothers and sisters who are different from us?

What would it look like if we truly joined God as Father and ran down the road to meet the returning prodigal?  Helped throw the party; welcomed back to community; maybe even gave up one of our robes for the prodigal to wear.

For over 25 years this parable has stalked me through the days of my own journey.  This week it reached out to grab me again.  I hope it will grab you as well.

If you're out in Annapolis, please join us for worship at 10:30 at Heritage Baptist.  We'd love to see you.

Shalom

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Breaking The Chains I Forged In Life

I have begun a new Interim.  This is a bitter-sweet experience.  It involved saying good-bye to the wonderful people at First Baptist of Gaithersburg and hello to those at Heritage Baptist in Annapolis, MD.  After taking roughly a month between the two, I began my work here at Heritage on Monday, June2.

It seems that I'm being called more and more to talk about "forgiveness."  A sermon on this topic last year at 1st Baptist and one as visitor to the pulpit of the Lai Congregation resulted in a number of deep conversations with individuals and an invitation to do a workshop last summer for Chin Clergy in Dallas, TX.  I don't see myself as an expert on the topic by any means.....probably just the opposite.  But it is an issue that I have struggled with a good deal of my life; both from the perspective of learning to accept God's forgiveness (as well as that of others), and of learning the discipline of forgiveness in my own life.

I've written a couple of previous blogs on this topic, so some of this is probably going to be repetitious if you've been following the blog.  But we're spending some time as a congregation at Heritage in a workshop on forgiveness with Dr. Robert Cochran of the DCBC and I'll be preaching on Jesus' memorable response to Peter in Matthew 18:21-35; so I'm writing again to stretch my own spirit about this issue.

The first thing that comes to my mind (and I don't know what it says about me that this is the image that comes up) is Marley from A Christmas Carol.  The words, "I wear the chains I forged in life," keep ringing in my mind.  The chains of resentment that I carry because I cannot let go and forgive; the chains of my own sins and shortcomings that I carry because I cannot let go of my guilt and shame.....both seem to me to be representative of chains that I have been offered the gift of being able to lay down.  Will I do the work that let's me accept this gift?  Or will I continue to move through life staggering under the weight of these chains and having the clank of their rattle overlay much of what I try to do and say in my Christian life?

The second thing is that failure to forgive or accept forgiveness puts a 'crimp in our style' as Christians.  If you think of our lives as like a garden hose through which God's love for creation flows, then our resentments and our clinging to our own shames puts a bend in that hose.  They can, in fact, if we are not careful, slow that flow down to a tiny trickle.  That blockage can make us miserable ourselves and deny us the ability to serve God as we've been called to do.

Finally, when Jesus answered Peter that he should forgive 70x7 He was not making a numerical count.  It was a reference (one that Peter would have known) to the book of Daniel.  There an angel is asked whether God will restore Isreal in 70 years.  The answer comes back that it will be 70 weeks of years.  So what Jesus is saying, in essence, is "forgive until the Kingdom comes....in fact, this is one of the things that will help bring in the Kingdom."

Forgiveness-both giving and accepting-is a spiritual discipline.  We get better at it with practice.  By practicing it in small ways, we will be prepared for the larger needs as they come.  Practicing forgiveness changes who we are.  It makes us less brittle and more supple in our walk of faith.  Forgiveness brings the "Kingdom on earth just as it is in heaven" closer as our lives begin more and more to resemble life in the final Kingdom that will come.

We, you and I, can lay those chains we've forged down.  God will help us break them and be free.  But it calls for an effort, a discipline on our part.  It is not an easy task; neither is it an impossible one.

I hope that if you're in the Annapolis area; living or visiting, that you'll drop in and worship with us on Sunday morning at 10:30.  And if you're here and would like to talk about this forgiveness thing, let me know.  We'll make the time to sit down and talk.

Shalom,
Stephen