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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Passing the Mantle

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Luke 9:51-62

Elijah was God’s great and lonely prophet in Israel, nine centuries before Christ. He was a man of towering deeds, deep depression, stunning courage, and mighty miracles. He had brought the dead back to life, defeated 400 pagan priests on a mountain top, and heard the voice of God in sheer silence. At the end of his life, he knew it was time for him to leave his work and go to God. He called a young farmer, Elisha, to follow him and take up his work. In this morning’s lesson, after years of standing up to the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, Elijah is about to be taken to heaven by chariots and horses of fire.

Elijah asks Elisha, who refuses to leave him despite Elijah’s promptings, what he can do for him before he leaves. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” Elisha replies. The double share is the portion given to the eldest son: Elisha is asking for the ability to carry on Elijah’s work. Elijah knows such a thing is not up to him, but to God. God gives the spirit and the call: if Elisha is permitted by God to see Elijah’s departure, that will be a sign of God’s favor and God’s provision for Elisha.

A chariot and horses of fire appear, and Elijah is taken into the skies in a tornado, presumably in the chariot. Elisha witnesses the whole scene, meaning that he has been blessed to take up Elijah’s work. So he picks up the prophet’s cloak, rolls it up, strikes the Jordan River with it, and asks, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” Just as it had for Elijah, the waters of the river part, and Elisha crosses to the other side.

The imagery in this story is rich. Parting the waters: like Moses, Elisha will help free God’s people from slavery and lead them to a new future. Chariots and horses of fire: Heavenly messengers are sent to escort Elijah to God’s presence. Mantle: more than a cloak, it is a symbol of authority, power, and protection.

Among my prize possessions are a watch, a ring, and cufflinks that belonged to my maternal grandfather. The cufflinks are the only items I wear, on those rare dress occasions when I wear a shirt with French cuffs. But every now and then I look at those things, or hold the pipe my mother gave him for his last birthday, and I remember his influence in my life and try to be a little more like him. When I become a grandfather in a few weeks, I will be thinking a lot about how my grandfather loved and taught and influenced me in profound ways. I wear his mantle.

All of us are cloaked in mantles bequeathed to us by those who have gone before us. I have heard many of you talk about parents and grandparents, teachers, neighbors, relatives, and friends whose mantles you wear. Many of you who were members of this church when Joe Carson was your pastor share, with me, the mantle of great opportunities he gave to you as your pastor and to me as my District Superintendent. We wear the mantles of Francis Asbury and John Wesley, pioneers of the United Methodist movement. But, for all the mantles we wear and pass to those who come after us, the most important is the mantle of Christ.

Lloyd C. Douglas was a Congregationalist minister who wrote historical novels, the most famous of which was The Robe. The book, made into a movie starring Richard Burton after Douglas’ death, is the story of Marcellus Gallio, the Roman tribune ordered to supervise Jesus’ crucifixion. In a drunken dice game at the foot of the cross, Marcellus wins Jesus’ robe, which he entrusts to his slave, Demetrius. Demetrius has become a secret follower of Jesus, and treasures the robe. Marcellus is haunted by the scene at the crucifixion of what was obviously an innocent man, who forgave Marcellus from the cross for his execution. After the crucifixion, at a banquet thrown by Pontius Pilate, a drunken centurion orders Marcellus to put on Jesus’ robe. Shaken to the core, Marcellus sets out to trace Jesus’ life and ministry, and becomes a follower of the man he killed. At the end of the book, Marcellus has to choose between allegiance to Caesar and allegiance to Christ. Carrying Jesus’ robe, Marcellus goes to his own cross.

The mantles we wear change our lives. The clothing of a nurse; a doctor; a soldier, sailor or Marine; a pastor; a musician; a lawyer; a judge; a fire fighter; police; a chef; or a thousand other cloaks define us to ourselves and to others. We live into the history and tradition we receive when we put on that mantle, and we leave a legacy, for better or worse, to those who come behind us. And when we put on the garments of Christ, we step into a two thousand year old history of sacrifice, of compassion, of courage, of witness. People have died because they wore this mantle, but so many more have lived because of it.

All other mantles we some day surrender. There comes a day when we cease to be husband or wife, parent or child, friend or neighbor, butcher, baker, tailor, doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief. And when that day comes, as today I cease to be your pastor, it behooves us to pass that mantle as gracefully as did Elijah to Elisha.

Five years ago when Bishop Kammerer sent me from her Cabinet into this pulpit, I told some of my best friends that I regretted not being able to finish some things I had started on the Ashland District. “All our work is partial,” my friend Dr. John Copenhaver, professor at Shenandoah University, said. John’s words hit me like a ton of humbling bricks. It’s so true: we never really finish anything. We could have always done a little more, a little better. We never really tell each other everything we want to say, we never really do everything we hoped to do, we never really become all we wanted to be. Even Jesus didn’t do everything he had hoped: the rich young man went away in sorrow, Pilate never figured out what truth was, and Judas hanged himself.

But Jesus knew what Elijah knew, and what we need to remember this morning and every morning: that God is still at work, in the power of the Holy Spirit, passing the mantle of faith and leadership to those who come after us. Five years ago next week, I stood in this pulpit for the first time as your pastor and said, This is not my church. But it’s not your church, either. This is Jesus’ Church, and as long as we are clear about that, there’s nothing we can’t do together for God. And we have done a lot of it. I have no doubt that you will continue to do great things for God with Jay Kelchner.

So, at the end of this service, I will lay my mantle on the Lord’s table, for Jay to inherit. All my work is partial, just as all Jay’s work, and all your work, will be partial. But God’s work is always whole, and God will continue to part the waters for you so you can help free people who are enslaved to injustice, sin, and death.

I close with a story from my first year in seminary. One day as I was wandering the stacks of the theology library, I found myself among books whose authors’ names began with the letter H. I found the shelf with books by my hero and mentor Julian Hartt, who had taught at Yale for thirty years before coming to UVa. I pulled a book of his called A Christian Critique of American Culture, and took it back to my dorm room to read. Overwhelmed with its message, I wrote Mr. Hartt a fan letter the next day. A week letter I received a reply, thanking me for my kind words. And then this world-famous Methodist minister and professor of philosophical theology said, Since we are now peers in ministry, I really think it’s time for you to no longer address me as your professor, but as your friend. Please call me Julian.

I pass my mantle as your pastor to Jay. But you and I will share for all eternity the mantle of our friendship in Christ. Thanks be to God.

Friday, June 18, 2010

In His Right Mind

Luke 8:26-39

On Tuesday, my cell phone contract expires, and I have to renew. I’m going to take my Blackberry to the Verizon store, put it on the counter, and ask for the stupidest phone they have. I don’t want to multitask any more. I don’t want to read my email anywhere in the world, or send and receive text messages (at twenty cents per), or take pictures, or read the news, or see how badly the Orioles lost today with my phone. I want a stupid phone: one that makes and receives phone calls. What a concept.

The book The Multitasking Myth presents a NASA study of airline cockpit operations. The researchers found that the more tasks cockpit crews were asked to do simultaneously, the less well they could do any of them, and the higher the probability of a serious mistake or accident. Remember the recent flight that passed its destination and had to turn around and go back, because the crew was – according to them – discussing their work schedules and rotations? It turns out that study after study shows that human beings really don’t multitask very well at all – that people who routinely multitask end up being easily distracted and accomplish their tasks more slowly and less well than when they can concentrate on one task at a time. Kids, when you tell your parents that you can watch TV, listen to music, check facebook, twitter, and do your homework all at the same time --- sorry. You’re busted. And parents – when you insist you can watch TV, read the paper, and have a conversation with each other or with your children at the same time – you’re busted.

And yet, we live in a culture which insists on our multitasking. A thousand demons shriek in our heads, demanding our simultaneous and equal attention. What’s the result? First, our attention spans decrease to nothing. That’s why it’s harder and harder to listen to a fifteen minute sermon: we don’t do anything that long without a break. Second, we do everything less and less well. Some years ago I was visiting the instrument-maker’s shop in Colonial Williamsburg. I asked the guitar-maker what was different about the guitars he made and the guitars, like mine, from the Martin factory in Pennsylvania. “They make 200 guitars a day,” he answered. “It takes me a week to make one guitar.” I told that story later to a Martin guitar repairman. “That’s right,” the Martin man said. “At Martin, the guy who makes guitar necks only makes necks, and then he passes it on to the guy who makes bodies. But the guy who makes necks is the best guitar neck maker in the world, because that’s all he does.”

Third, the thousand competing voices make us crazy.

Jesus and the disciples cross the sea of Galilee to the eastern shore, to a non-Jewish region called variously in the gospels Gergesa or Gadara. They are confronted by a demon-possessed lunatic living, naked, in the graveyard. When Jesus asks his name – that is, the name of the demon possessing him – he answers “Legion.” A Roman legion was a unit of roughly 5,000 soldiers: for you veterans, a brigade. Maybe there were 5,000 demons, maybe there were fifty, but the point is the same. There were many, many voices screaming for attention in this poor man’s head and heart and life, and they had driven him crazy, had driven him out of the company of family and friends, and had torn the clothes off his body. He was toxic, and ended up living in the two most toxic places a Jew could be – in the midst of pigs, and in the midst of the rotting dead.

The great Baptist scholar, preacher, and agricultural reformer Clarence Jordan told the story of a call from the Americus, Georgia police one night shortly after the end of World War Two, asking for help with a young man they had picked up wandering the streets of the town naked. Every time they put clothes on him, the man tore them off, and kept tearing at his skin, wounding himself. When Jordan talked to him, he learned that the young man had grown up in church and went to Sunday School every week, where he heard preachers and teachers tell him to love his enemies and to forgive. Then along came the war. He was drafted, a rifle was put in his hands, and he had to kill others in combat. When he came home, the conflicting voices in his life – one telling him to love and to forgive, and the other telling him to obey and to kill – drove him so crazy he kept tearing the clothes off his body.

The competing voices drive us crazy, too. Love and forgive your enemies, but kill them. Seek first the Kingdom of God, but make lots of money and own lots of stuff. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless, but not at your own expense or inconvenience. Take up your cross and follow Jesus, but look out for number one. Go pick up trash on the riverbanks, but take lots of bottled water with you. Honor the sabbath, by letting strangers do the cooking, run the film projector, or play ball for you. Like the Gerasene demoniac and all multitaskers, we can’t pay attention, we do more and more less and less well, and it drives us out of our mind.

What does the demoniac do to come, at the end of the story, to his right mind? First, he falls down at Jesus’ feet. He stops multitasking. He stops everything, and falls down in front of Jesus. Annual Conference this week disturbed me. The denomination is in trouble – we have no clear direction, the numbers are going down – and this week we were presented with dozens of voices, from the Conference preacher (a friend of mine) to Bible Study leaders to heads of committees and agencies, giving us new strategies and plans for resurrection and all telling us to try harder. We have twelve keys to a successful church, five practices for fruitful ministry, and three simple rules. And none of it, it seems to me, is working. At the end of the Conference, Keith Boyette, pastor of Wilderness Church on our District, moved that in the coming year every church in the Virginia Conference enter into a season of fasting, of prayer, of waiting upon the Lord, and of repentance for our failure to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with our neighbors. I asked a friend of mine, with whom I had discussed this very thing, if he had put Keith up to this. No, he answered, this is the Holy Spirit.

If you want to get out of a hole, someone has said, the first thing to do is to stop digging. Don’t work harder: stop! If you want to exorcise the five thousand voices in your life all claiming top priority and driving you insane, the first thing to do is stop everything and fall down at Jesus’ feet. That’s what Sundays are supposed to be for – if we can squeeze it into our busy schedules, including our busy vacation schedules. Are you beginning to see where the problem is? Stop. Fall down at Jesus’ feet.

Second, we have to name the demons. The first rule of mental, spiritual, and physical health is that knowing the problem is the first step to a cure. Last summer when I fell in the back yard and my leg wouldn’t work any more, a doctor had to name the demon – a ruptured tendon – before I could be healed. What are the demons that claim your allegiance? Pride. Lust. Greed. Envy. Fear. Drugs. Insecurity. Shame. Guilt. Hate. Power. Depression. Mortality. Grief. There are five thousand and more to choose from. But Jesus cannot call out what we will not name. That is why daily self-examination, daily confession, daily repentance are not optional for believers. To name the demons – as Adam named the animals – is to claim power over them. To name the demons is to separate them from ourselves. We are not the demon: now the named demon can be cast out, without us being killed. We are not the demon.

It’s only when we stop running around the graveyard, trying to kill the demons ourselves, and fall down, helpless, before Jesus, that we can begin to recover the self that God created us to be. It’s only when we realize the difference between the demons that manipulate us and the selves that God created us to be that we can come to our right minds. Then, clothed in what Jesus gives us to wear, we can tell the whole world what Jesus has done.

Stop. Fall down at Jesus’ feet. Name the demons. Let Jesus dress you. And come to your right mind.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Hope for the Hopeless

Pentecost 2C, 2010

1 Kings 17:8-24

Luke 7:11-1

A widow’s lament pierces the hot Middle Eastern day. She cannot be comforted – her only son is dead. Her grief reaches to the bottom not just of her own soul, but of the entire life of the community. There is no sorrow like that of a parent over the loss of a child: parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Every good parent would willingly exchange her life for the life of her child; every parent would willingly endure surgery, illness, injury, pain, and grief, to spare the child. But in first-century Israel, the death of a widow’s only son meant disaster for the widow: not only was her future made precarious by the loss of the one obligated to care for her in her old age, but upon the death of the male heir all her husband’s property reverted to his nearest male relative. The widow weeps for her son, but also for herself: she is without means, without future, and without hope.

Someone once said that human beings can live three weeks without food, three days without water, three minutes without air, but only three seconds without hope. Infants not held and talked to can die from “failure to thrive” syndrome. In the classic movie The African Queen, the Methodist missionary pastor dies a day after German troops kidnap the villagers, burn their homes and the church, and leave the pastor and his sister in the ruins. As a pastor, I have watched many parishioners, when told by doctors there’s nothing more that can be done for them medically, die within days. Death rates spike shortly after retirement, when people who have worked all their lives suddenly have nothing to do. In the projects, young men resign themselves to short and violent lives, and fulfill their own prophecies with brief but lucrative careers in crime. People cannot live without hope.

Have you ever lost hope? Maybe it was the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship. Perhaps it was the death of a hope or of a career. Did your belief in a loving and beneficent God die with a college class when you learned that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John probably didn’t write the gospels attached to their names, or that the earth wasn’t made in six twenty-four hour days, or that St. Paul probably didn’t believe in the virgin birth of Jesus? Or was it when an innocent child died of a terrible disease, or a good friend died because of a drunk driver, or when someone you loved suffered terribly because of cancer or another condition? Maybe it was this week when you saw picture after picture of dead fish and birds on the Gulf Coast shoreline, and wondered why pelicans have to die because human beings took shortcuts to make more money. Let’s be honest before we come to the Lord’s Table today – every one of us here is mourning a dead hope great or small, sacred or mundane.

The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarepath and Jesus and the widow of Nain are almost exactly parallel. Widows lose their only sons and are left destitute. The disasters here are personal and corporate, individual and systemic. Both the prophet and the Savior address the private and the public issues with their responses to the widows’ cries.

Two things have to happen to make the dead boys live again. First, there are cries of distress from their mothers. When God appears to Moses in the burning bush in Exodus 3, God says he has heard the cry of his people in Egypt. Jesus told the parable of an unjust judge who finally responded to a widow – note the widow theme again – because she badgered him day and night. In Israel and in the ancient church, saints crying out to God in prayer tore their clothing, poured ashes on their heads, fasted, prayed and wept day and night until God answered their prayers. We toss off a quick dear God, bless the pelicans and then go shopping or eat some comfort food so we’ll feel better. Mahatma Gandhi said there were seven great spiritual evils in the world: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, and worship without sacrifice. We want God to answer our prayers, restore our hopes, and revive our lives, but we want it all with minimal commitment on our part. God hears the cries of his people: are we willing to sacrifice our time, our pleasure, our money, and our very lives so the dead can be raised? If our cheap and easy prayers go unanswered, don’t blame God.

Second, Elijah and Jesus respond to the widows’ cries with compassion. They don’t toss off an easy healing without any personal investment. Elijah takes the dead boy in his arms, carries him upstairs, lays him on his own bed, cries out to God in anguish, and then stretches himself upon the boy three times, transferring his own life into the dead boy. Jesus, seeing the widow of Nain, has compassion for her, stops what he is doing, and lays his hands upon the dead boy. Hope and new life only come with sacrificial involvement.

The genius of the Harry Potter books is that all the young wizards go off to Hogwarts thinking they’re going to learn the magic words and potions to be able to manipulate any situation in the world. As it turns out, the people in the books who use the spells and potions for their own purposes are the evil ones: Voldemort, the Malfoys, Umbridge, and Lestrange. In every book, evil is defeated not by dispassionate applications of magic devices, but always by an act of self-sacrificial love. At the end of the series, Harry, who is a Christ figure, sacrifices himself to defeat evil, and is resurrected.

When I went off to preacher school – my own Hogwarts Academy – I thought I would learn easy spells and quick potions to cure the world. To my great dismay, I learned there are no magic words to be said when a parent loses a child; when someone you love dies; when the doctor says there’s nothing more to be done; when friends and lovers betray; when a career goes under; when hurricanes and floods destroy homes and communities and lives. There are no magic words; no aspirin to take with instructions to call us in the morning. Instead, we sit and weep with the mourners, befriending them in their utter loneliness. We pray prayers when we do not believe, sing hymns when we have no voice, tell stories of the past when there is no future, shovel debris and hammer nails when we have no skills. The world is never healed by the healthy sharing their leftovers: there can be no resurrection unless the living, like Elijah, get into bed with the dead and, like Jesus, sacrifice their lives for the sake of the lost.

There is hope for the hopeless, and new life for the dead in all of us. But new creations and new births come only with great sacrifice and great pain: the sacrifice of a soul-wrenching cry from the depths of one’s life, of all other agendas and priorities surrendered in an all-consuming quest for deliverance. If, as Luther said, God does not forgive imaginary sins, then surely God also does not answer superficial petitions. Are we willing to rend our hearts and our clothing, for the healing of the world? More, are we willing to give more than our spare change, our spare time, our spare attention to raise the dead? If all we offer God and a dying world is what’s left over when we’ve exhausted our own interests, then we should not be surprised if, when we are the ones needing resurrection, there’s nothing left to revive.

When you come to the table this morning, I invite you to come in full and sacrificial cry for the dying and dead child of hope in you. And remember that Jesus didn’t give you his spare time – he died for you. Go, and do thou likewise.