“The Business of Tending, Feeding, and Following”.pdf here.
By Courtney Allen
Wake Forest University School of Divinity
April 20, 2010 Chapel Service
Do you ever get that rare feeling after a day at the divinity school where you know why you’re here, what you’re called to do, and can’t wait to get out of Wingate Hall and start doing that good, important, and radical work?
Well, if you haven’t experienced this yet, I hope that you will at some point in your divinity school career.
In my experience there are just certain days like that around here where your calling, your classes, your conversations, and your future intersect in powerful and profound ways.
But it was absolutely not one of those days for the four disciples near the Sea of Tiberius in the 21st chapter of John.
They’ve journeyed to Jerusalem with Jesus, Peter has denied Jesus three times.
Jesus has been tried, crucified and buried. And although in the gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus has already shown up and said to the disciples, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” the disciples go back to the way things were before Jesus even showed up.
It seems they ignore Jesus’ first resurrection commissioning in lieu of a fishing trip.
Simon Peter says, “I’m going fishing, guys.” And the other disciples say, “We’re going with you.”
But the problem with this fishing expedition is that after fishing all night, the disciples have caught not one single fish.
Now this is not the first of the disciples’ gospel fishing expeditions and it’s also not the first time they’ve had trouble catching fish.
This crew doesn’t seem to have much luck on the water without the help of Jesus.
I have always loved and laughed with this text from John.
We have such a regular, ordinary, and non-cosmic kind of resurrection story here.
The disciples go fishing, ‘someone’ on the shore says, “Are ya’ll catching anything out there?” The downcast disciples say no.
The said by-stander gives advice and instruction to fish off the right side of the boat.
And then disciples begin to catch fish and the beloved disciple recognizes the by-stander as Jesus the Lord himself.
And if those regular ol’ details weren’t enough, next a naked Peter puts his clothes on to jump into
the water to get to Jesus as quickly as he can.
Then Jesus in typical resurrected Lord style, says, “Come and eat some breakfast ya’ll.”
A night of futile fishing, a naked Peter, a resurrected Jesus who is making his third appearance, and a good old fashioned fish breakfast on the beach, just like mama used to make?
What kind of resurrected, power-over-death, evil-defeated kind of story is this?
And the story continues.
After breakfast around a charcoal fire that sounds eerily similar to the charcoal fire around which Peter denied Jesus, the resurrected one begins asking Peter questions:
Do you love me more than these?
Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.
Jesus says, “Then feed my lambs”
He asks again, “Do you love me?”
Again Peter responds, “Yes, you know that I love you…”
Jesus says, “The tend my sheep.”
For the third time Jesus asks Peter the same question, and Peter says, “Lord you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
The three-fold “do you love me” questions mirror Peter’s three denials.
In the aftermath of his denials, we notice the restoration of Peter to Jesus in this conversation.
But I think this conversation is about more than restoration.
It’s about being commissioned to do the holy work of God in the world, maybe even despite being a denier.
I think we need the "everydayness" of this story to remind us of the everydayness of our call.
This is an embodied incarnate Jesus in the kitchen with the pots and pans.
It’s a Jesus who says, “Come have some breakfast.”
He says things like, “Feed and tend my sheep, and I will know that you love me.”
And of all the ways Jesus could have responded to Peter and of all things he could have asked him to do, why would he commission him to “feed” and “tend”?
I think it has something to do with the transformative potential that lives in spaces where food is shared and the needs of one another are tended to.
One of my favorite small collections of poetry includes the line, “How can we hand bread to one another and remain the same?” Breaking bread together means shared hospitality and nourishment.
It is the transforming possibility that lies in daily, tangible, and earthly acts.
Jesus calls Peter into the world to care and to risk in a way that he might trust another beyond himself.
He calls him to get close enough to others to listen and to share their sorrows and joys, their vulnerability and dreams. Jesus calls Peter in his nakedness to do the everyday things of breaking bread together and tending to the people of God in authentic relationships.
In our lives of ministry we must cultivate acts that embody the everyday earthly Christ in the world.
What do these acts look like in your world of ministry?
To what everyday and earthly spaces has God called you to feed and tend?
After Jesus tells Peter to tend and feed his sheep but just before he instructs Peter to follow him, he notes that Peter will die a death that will not be pleasant and will be contrary to his wishes and desires.
I think Jesus was reminding Peter that the gospel message and work he was being commissioned to do was going to cost him something.
And we know that following Jesus should and will cost us something as well.
But do we really know that and are we really willing to accept the cost?
Pat Bumgardner, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church in NYC said, “The gospel will cost you something, it’s just a matter of what it will cost you.”
She went on to say that if the gospel is not costing you something, then you may not be preaching the gospel.
And if the gospel is not costing you something you may as well be preaching Walt Whitman.
But oh how we need the good news of the gospel!
Oh how the world needs the good news of the gospel!
Lord let us accept the cost and the risk of proclaiming it and living it!
When we accept the cost and risk of proclaiming and living this radical gospel we start asking different questions. Instead of asking questions about how we will survive in this big world, we begin to ask questions about which ditch we are willing to die in.
What ditch are you willing to die in?
Jesus calls us, feeds us, and then commissions us to tend and feed others.
In the everyday-ness of the resurrection story, we find disciples who forgot the call of Jesus and went back to their old ways of fishing, as if they’d never encountered the living Lord. But in the "everydayness" of the fishing, nakedness, and breakfast, we also see a resurrected Jesus who gathers things that are already there and puts them to life giving uses.
Jesus finds the disciples who can’t catch a fish to save their lives and he says try it another way.
Fish on the right hand side of the boat.
He already has some fish cooking by the charcoal fire when he invites them to breakfast and says, bring some of the fish you just caught, we need them, too.
He finds a brokenhearted Peter who betrayed him, and Jesus restores and commissions him to a new and life-giving way of being.
I have to admit to you that on the days that I don’t feel like the stars are aligned with my life, work, and calling here at the divinity school, I’m like the disciples.
I want to go back to the way things were before I ever knew the radical Jesus.
On these days I get overwhelmed with the state of the world with all of its injustice and oppression.
I feel like I don’t have enough resources, strength, or good ideas to help or heal any of it.
But in this resurrection story we find a Jesus who does imaginative things through everyday, earthy existence to help and to heal.
That’s why Jesus commissions Peter to tend, feed, and follow.
It’s a creative and compassionate, courageous and audacious way of operating in the world even in the midst of overwhelming injustice and seemingly immutable problems. But maybe following this Jesus is engaging in what Darby Ray describes as the ministry of divine ingenuity.
She says when you’re at the margins and you’re the underdog, you don’t think of blowing evil out of the water on those days, but you think of how to work on evil in ways that might help salvage or save a world that might be worth living in.
Maybe as ministers of this radical Jesus and as disciples of imagination and ingenuity, we ought to practice a scrappy theology.
A theology in which to follow God is to live life in a mode of scrappy resourcefulness, realizing that maybe our goal as ministers and prophets and restored Peters is not to win, escape or even abolish the troubles or suffering.
But our calling is to embody in the flesh the same kind of courage, creativity, and compassion God revealed in Jesus and he embodied each day of his life.
What if following this Jesus means not returning to our old ways of life and unsuccessful fishing trips?
But what if its about cultivating dispositions and practices that do not cower or despair in the face of complex systemic problems like racism or sexism, or poverty, or war.
What if we might find the creativity and the courage to face the everydayness of these huge discourses that define our world?
The risen ingenuous Christ himself calls us to this.
He still calls, and on some days I’m more certain of it than others.
But I think he still feeds and he still empowers even us, the doubters and deniers, for the ministry of imagination in the face of complex but everyday problems.
He feeds and empowers us at this very table of communion, and from this table we are called to follow in the way of this everyday resurrected Lord. It is an everyday kind of commissioning and call, but a costly one.
But such is the nature of the radical gospel of Christ our Lord.
May God give us the scrappy resourcefulness to embody such a life-giving, courageous, and creative gospel message.
The world is waiting for you and me to bring a ministry of imagination to the old problems that continue to plague us.
May God give us the imagination and ingenuity to think in new and transformative ways about old problems and real injustices.
As some prepare to leave these hallowed halls and others are just settling into this community, where will we follow the risen Christ? How shall we attempt to embody in our everyday-ness the capacity to compassionately and creatively tend and feed the world?
Phrase and thought borrowed from Dr. Darby Ray of Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi.
Courtesy of J.L. Carlton at Foggy Bog Tavern
There, over there... see how it reflects light.
Beaming with life.
Air and wind and newspaper dancing.
Vandals in hoodies, dancing in the moon's shadow.
A quiet alley.
No news. Absence.
Art finds itself mixed in toxins; destroying and yet colors become us, expressed.
A passer by.
A glance of disgust; and yet it lingers.
Brimming with that which is suppressed.
Toxins and suits.
Slow sledge sipping on exploit.
Wishing for color; vacationing for color; searching for color...
.eidooh a dnif ot won...
“Into Deeper Waters”
.pdf found here For the Occasion of Wake Forest University Chapel, January 28, 2010 Rev. J. Zachary Bailes Luke 5: 1-11: Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. It’s a mysterious substance. I can’t recall my first encounter. Every since we were conceived we have been in constant contact. In fact, without the substance I could not be speaking today. Indeed, it has the power to kill and the power to heal. And one day Jesus preached from a boat he floated and bobbed on top of our mysterious substance. He commanded fledgeling fishermen to go out into deeper waters. D.H. Lawrence, the provocative poet, proclaimed, “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing, that makes water and nobody knows what that is.” Allow me to suggest to you that our mysterious third element, the hidden element, is possibility. As Jesus was simply standing crowds closed in. He escaped to a boat that became a pulpit. Some rogue fishermen, seemingly available, were asked to put out a bit – just enough so that Jesus’ voice might be heard. He taught. Of what, we do not know. But, perhaps Jesus had an affinity with water. Perhaps Jesus looked out over the sea and pondered. After completing his homily, his lecture, he asked Simon to put out a bit. Get away from the shallows. Go into the deep. Yet, Simon, tired and weary, seems hesitant. He concedes. Though I can imagine the inner-dialogue. “Into the deep? What is he thinking? We have cleaned our nets. We have tried catching fish. It’s too hot, the fish aren’t biting.” Yet he casts out anyway. Into Deeper Waters. I grew up on the banks of the Mighty Ohio. Without water my town doesn’t grow. Without water my town doesn’t eat. And to this day barges flow into the port carrying precious minerals, barges full of dollar signs. The culture dictated fishing. If you didn’t hunt, fine. If you didn’t watch NASCAR, fine. But, if you didn’t fish, well there was something wrong with you. I worked on a farm, and one of the perks was that when I finished my day’s work I could go fishing on one of the three ponds. Forget the paycheck, this was certainly worth every drop of sweat. It was during the dog days of summer, when the fish would go deep into cooler waters. No longer did fish hide under logs, but in the deepest parts. You would tie on the heaviest weight and cast down, down, down to the bottoms. I can guarantee that a cast to the depths on a summer day will land you catch. Perhaps it was on a hot summer day that Jesus sat in a boat. He watched time after time from the shore. His perception allowed him to see something Simon did not. That fish, when faced with the warming waters learned to escape to the refreshing coolness of deeper waters. Into the deeper waters of possibility. Either it took great courage to cast their nets into deeper waters or they were exasperated. But who here can attest the difficulty of trying one more time? Who here can tell me that trying again is an easy task? Because we certainly cast our nets out attempting to receive the sustenance that lies below the surface. We cast our nets out into possibility. Sometimes, we simply want to clean our nets and come in for the day. You may know well the emptiness of casting out into the waters and returning with an empty net. But, to catch something we must know what we are seeking. What possibilities do you desire to see? What do you hope you will catch? First century Palestine thrived on fish. The sea of Galilee supported a booming fishing industry. Caught were many different varieties of fish: panfish, carp, and catfish. It is in this fashion that we cast our nets into the waters pulling up varieties of sustenance. A 5-year-old boy named Monley was pulled alive from a collapsed home on last Wednesday and was taken to a hospital to be treated for severe dehydration. His mother was killed and his father is missing, but doctors attributed Monley's survival to resilience and the strength of his young body. Relatives found the boy in a void beneath the ruins of his house as they searched for his father, his uncle said. Four of the uncle's friends helped pull the boy out as he cried out, over and over again, "I'm thirsty." In Haiti, people are casting nets down into the rubble in hopes that what will come up is life.
We all seek different things when we cast our nets into the water. Perhaps you are seeking hope. Hope that what has been will no longer be. Hope reaches forward. Hope asks, “What should life look like?” We strive with hope not only for brighter days, but better days. With hope, we strive for days where peace will reign and pain is no more.
Perhaps you strive to pull up nets full of peace and reconciliation. We strive to pull up the sustenance that calms. We strive to get a bit of the balm that soothes the dry, cracked skin that is inequality.
And, maybe still, we strive to find comfort for the pain we feel and the pain of those around us. We hope that what we will pull up is the courage to be joyful and uplifted. Yet, this too can all too often seem so hard to catch.
When we return to the shore, retiring for the day, nets empty and hearts weary, we hear the words, “Put out into deeper waters, and let down your nets.” The societal pressures that sit upon us are a heat wave that we cannot ignore. Yet the sustenance that we strive for retreats to the depths. We are not called to go into the shallows. In the shallows we will not find the sustenance that will fulfill and sustain. We are called into the cool depths because there lies a bountiful catch. Going deeper in our lives, in the lives of those around us calls for courage-filled creativity. We must be willing to go where people have not been willing to go before. That when we are willing to go deeper, we reinvent how we interact with our world. We combine that which is different, remarkable, and challenging. If the twenty-fist century is to be any less deadly than the twentieth, we must stand up and speak out. Senses of justice must become more acute. The appreciation for the fragility life must become deeper. We must become, as a global community, more caring and compassionate. And yet, discouragement happens. Weariness happens. Fact is I could explain how to overcome discouragement, but it won't make you feel any better. We find comfort in the arms of community. While we are called to hear stories, we must also be willing to tell our own story. We cannot carry our burdens alone. Discouragement is a season we all pass through.
And yet as prophets of redemption we are called to heal a broken world. We are asked to bring to the shores sustenance that calms and explains. Sometimes words are not enough. When we have those that are suffering, an explanation will not do.
But, do we not know pain? Who here can tell me that they have not buried a mother, brother, or sister? Who here can tell me that they have not felt hurt and brokeness? Who here can tell me they have not found brokeness alive in their lives? Who has not been in midnight hour when you feel alone, desperate, broken and without hope. It is not only in our own lives that we need healing. It is between the liberals and conservatives that we need healing. We need healing from sexism and racism. We need healing between the husband and the wife; between women and the church; between homosexuals and the church. And the church needs healing with itself.
The fish, the food, the sustenance you so eagerly seek will heal the nations.
Yet when we have hauled in our nets we must get off the boat. The task of preservation begins. In Galilee fish would be salted, dried, or pickled for preservation. We too must preserve our catch. Our catch is shared with the community that upholds, inspires, and challenges the world. It is this food, this sustenance from the deep waters of possibility, that sustains and encourages. As we become both a community in the sanctuary, we are also becoming a sanctuary in the community.
Significant challenges are up ahead. There are significant challenges today. The sustenance for the world and for our lives will not wait in the shallows. The increasing temperatures of division drive sustenance farther away. When we have become weary. When our nets come up empty. When we want so much to give up. Go into deeper waters and let down your nets.
There are those of us that have grown dependent upon man-made systems concerning the bible, theology and governance therein. Through well meant interpretive processes and through projection, we have sought unwittingly and/or intentionally to exert power and control over sacred spaces and persons alike. God, I am guilty of manipulating your message of Love for selfish ambition, lofty postulation, and avoidance; through the advocation of propositions devoid of action, and bent with bias; through loving those from in whom I would benefit the most, while disregarding the marginalized. My conscience tells me that You are ever-present; that You sustain the living universe; that You want love and not lemons. I am guilty of hiding behind certain theological and philosophical expressions, and I have constantly failed to act according to my own conscience. For this I am ashamed. My conscience screams treat everyone and everything gently with love no matter the circumstance; to promote peace at all times, and also; to do justice, or do justly, when suffrage transpires, and to walk humbly, where arrogance has rooted itself. I have failed in turn O Lord, to recognize how such said 'man-made systems' have oppressed others also. I am an American, seemingly blessed beyond measure, but such blessings come with great and unnecessary costs at times. May my propositioning fall to the unfathomed and ever-changing Wind of Your Spirit. May I learn from Jesus' example of how to do justly where systems have disparaged others. May I know, that you O God, are loving, and that Your ways are intimately involved in this place for the better. Amen.
J L Carlton
Give him a visit at www.foggybogtavern.com
Isaiah 58:9-14 :: Preached the weekend of August 28, 2010 .pdf version here For many, this weekend provided a political platform for anyone who wanted it. If you were a Beckian you loved the gathering on the Lincoln Memorial. If you were a Liberal you railed against it. If you recognized the genius and significance of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech you celebrated it, and knew the improvements that are undoubtedly ahead. Some Christians jumped away from Beck's close alliance with the faith, while some silently complied. Then there was the mosque issue, or community center issue – I guess it depends on your political rhetoric.
Everybody points a finger. Some point it at an idea, while others point it at a person. Yet, there exists some fantasy in believing that the problem, whatever it or they may be, is the responsibility of someone else. We live in a dream-world if we think that the issues we face today are always the product of someone else, and not us. Isaiah relays the message from the Lord God that help is on the way. If. Oh, it’s always the if. It’s those two little letters pose the greatest challenge to us. You shall cry for help and I shall announce my presence, my comforting presence, IF… If you remove the words that only drudge up hate and malcontent. If you stop staring at the person on the end of your pointing finger and reckon with the subject of the four fingers pointing back at you. If you listen to the words that are coming out of your mouth – and the hate they convey. IF. Isaiah goes on and starts talking about food. Words about food are not distant, and are not far off. We have heard these words in the Gospels. In Luke 6, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.’ Those that are hungry, that yearn for basic sustenance are the blessed. And according to Isaiah feeding those that hunger is a prime directive for the presence of God. Filling up the low places – the empty stomachs invites the beloved presence of God. But, hunger is not the only directive. No, there are those that afflicted. From loneliness, to alcoholism, and racism, there are those that suffer and we must make ourselves present. In the risk we take is the gift that God gives. In our vulnerability of reaching out we open ourselves to that divine nausea – where we become uneasy and uncomfortable with what God is doing. This weekend many called out that we have a nation divided. Many said that we are nothing but a disorganized conglomeration of people. Some blamed Democrats, telling them that they must reckon with their reckless buying into fear, and those fear-mongers. Instead of standing up for what they believed in, they have bowed down to the altar of seat protection and re-election.
Then there were those that said, ‘Republicans, you do not escape blame either, for your relentless and shameful silence amidst prejudiced and bigoted rhetoric of fanatical groups. Instead of taking control of your own voice, you have allowed others to make you the puppet.’
This weekend displayed the remarkable power of blame. That blame does not prove anyone guilty. Blame does not make a way. Blame divides. There were those that weekend that called themselves Christians. They played the part and used the word. But those that spoke hateful words, and neglected the humanity of others have forgotten their Christ. They may have heard a sermon every Sunday morning, but they have become deaf to the sermon of our Christ. That sermon that says, Blessed are the peacemakers, those that mourn, the merciful, and those that stand up not for a political party, but for the common humanity in all.
My fellow Americans, have we become but mere spectators of the parade of ignorance? Do we stand silent while talking-heads control our personal policy? Why must we, who have and will procure this nation take marching orders from people who do not speak for us or our humanity?
There’s another sermon to hear today. It is in the voice of Isaiah. The turmoil that the Israelites are living in is something that we find distant. Their nation has suffers an identity crisis. Their plight is that of economic distress and social upheaval. They are fearful of what might come. Notice that the Lord God does not say that everything will be all right. The Lord God does not get on TV and tell them to be afraid. God commands them to give and serve. And there our needs shall be built. Nourishment will greet us. Ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. If you honor God there we will be met with God’s presence – a healing presence. Between cabbies honking horns and people yelling at the cabbies, my noise threshold has been broken. Buildings loom over me, watching my every step, and I am painfully aware of my insignificance. Then, my eyes disengage their vertical gaze, and pivot downward toward the cafes, cars, and crosswalks. New York City has that affect on you: point your eyes toward the buildings that point to the heavens. Fix your eyes upon the Towers of Babel. A soup kitchen. It’s a completely misleading term. I’ve never been to a soup kitchen that serves soup. Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen wasn’t serving soup that day, but it was a soup kitchen. Grab your ticket. Get in line. Get your food. Get a drink. It was cattle herding at its finest. Fluidly the line moved until it was time to grab a seat. We walked into the nave. Where proper rows of chairs sat on Sunday, today chaos from which creation was ordered displayed itself. Chairs and tables were strewn about as though a giant child had emptied her toy box and decided to create a playtime soup kitchen. Gazes and stares seared their mark on me. I am the other. I am the white guy. I dress nicely. I smell fresh. It’s this moment that I wish for skyscraper to yank my gaze from the ground. Glued to the floor were my ashamed eyes. As my breath shortened and my palms moistened, I felt like a 15 year old boy going out on his first date asking, “What will they think about me?” I sat and stared at my food: Chicken Parmesan; Texas toast; mixed vegetables; collard greens; a banana; cookie; and, lemonade. You know those westerns where the dusty rider strolls in, spurs taping the ground, and the entire saloon goes quiet? That didn’t happen. The men at the table kept eating and chatting. I only received the passing glance. The next logical step was to peck at my food. Peck. Peck. Peck. Cut the chicken. Ingest. In a stroke of genius, I opened my mouth. When I did, something came out. Something that seemed so familiar, but so wrong. Something that I wanted to grab and put back in my voice box. I wanted to grab the words, stuff them in the box, and lock it. Why couldn’t I lock the box? Why did that box have to open itself? The words released would set off a firestorm of intense stares and pointed questions. Three words. That’s all it took. Three words: How are you? Stares were met with stares. Silence descended upon the table. It was Pentecost minus the speaking in tongues part. I understood well the language spoken: silence. You can only translate silence contextually. When your on the front steps of your beloved waiting for the kiss goodnight, you stare silently into their eyes. The silence means more than any words can communicate. On this day the silence at the table was disastrously honest. I was being scolded. Yes, I was the one who asked the question. To ask a question is to expect an answer. Except for those rhetorical questions, in which case you already know the answer. Perhaps I had asked a rhetorical question, but I didn’t know the answer. Yes, they were grungy and smelly. They were what society had told me was poor. But, then again, I was a white, middle-class, clean smelling, proper-eating, man sitting there asking, “How are you?” I might have well asked, “So, you’re poor?” In those stares, those awkward moments, God started talking. Some call it the voice in the back of your head, or your conscience. If my conscience would have spoken, I wouldn’t be have eaten lunch in non-soup soup kitchen. I’d like to think that God was speaking through those men. The stares were the penetrating force of God’s love telling me that I had over-stepped my bounds. Then, a response. The words were uttered from the bearded face of a middled-aged man. There must have been a wrinkle on his face for every story told and every dead-end encountered. “You don’t belong here,” he said. He was right, I don’t belong here. I am the son of privilege and might. Yes, I am the one your honor. I am the one that oppresses. I got caught white-handed. The executive order had been issued: I wasn’t welcome. Me? I’m not welcome? I agreed at first. Then, those laser beam stares broke through. Crashing through was an epiphany, a realization, an ah-ha moment, a theological awakening, a connection with humanity, a splash of cold water, a visit by the Other, and a “hello” by that Holiest of Spirits. I wanted to shout, “I am welcome!” Here everything that causes you to take ownership in this soup kitchen can be thrown in my face. The systems confining you can be destructed. Don’t you know that you shouldn’t feel welcome here? Don’t you know that feeling welcome here is exactly what the power of oppression wants you to feel? Don’t you know? Don’t you know? Don’t you know? In silence I finished my meal. I savored every morsel. Food spiced with humility dripped over my taste buds. I wanted to stare in their eyes, confront their gaze, and plead, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” I walked away. I walked from the church into the noise. The silence I found was fleeting. The silent complacency my poor siblings lived remained. I plead not for me, but for my inaction. Soup kitchens fill the gap where society drops out. What I once loved, I now despise. What I once thought was God’s gift, is society’s secret treasure. Keep the soup kitchens going. Keep the poor, poor. Yet, knowing what I now know, I can’t digest complacency. I wonder about the wrinkles and how many of those wrinkles tell a story of a closed fist, not an open heart. As I walked the streets I heard noisy rhetoric reaching decibels that drowned out possibility. I put my ear to the ground to hear the voice of God saying, “You belong with the poor. The poor belong with you.” Thinking that I can rid the world of Soup Kitchens not because they’re bad, but because if there are no more there are no poor, takes a certain Spirit. Thinking that we can feed those that have fed for so long on the unhealthy foods of bigotry and ignorance takes a certain Spirit. Thinking that we can provide healing for those afflicted, and continuing care for those that have been afflicted takes a certain Spirit. Engaging systems that time after time have abused humanity takes the spirit of courage. Courage isn’t always the roar of a lion, sometimes it’s the hand on your back gently pushing you forward. The spirit of courage reaches out when a young child returns home after school knowing she will not eat that night.
The spirit of courage moans when the quality of education is equated to the color of skin.
The spirit of courage itches under our collars when in our most desperate of times, in the darkest of nights, we choose to fight rather than draw together.
We live in a precarious time, but times will grow all the more the precarious as long as we continue the infighting and the blame game. I, too, have blamed others, policies, and ideas for far too long. It is high-time that we come together under the banner of God’s great providing love. Where there is hunger, we will offer sustenance – not just bread. Where there is disease, we will offer healing – not just antibiotics. Where there is systematic injustice, we will live out the Kingdom of God. Not through blaming and not through condemnation, but through the building up of those that lay low and society has trampled over. Many in this country and our society have bought into the story that God is gone. We are no longer a Godly people. In some sense they’re correct – we are not our own Gods. We do not control the world around us with the flick of a finger. Isaiah however did not say that God had left the scene. Isaiah was not proclaiming that God had left this world, God’s people, to go play hopscotch the next galaxy. Isaiah was proclaiming that God was radically here. The Israelites would and we will see God’s presence IF we feed the hungry. God’s presence will demonstrate itself IF we live out the Kingdom of God. From age to age God’s presence has been found in the rush of a fiery blaze, manna falling from heaven, or the parting of a Sea. But God’s presence today is demonstrating itself through the call for making whole those that have been broken by the systems of oppression and repression.
Let us go now so that then, we shall be called the repairers of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9; 13:9-13 - For a .pdf version click here
"Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite. Or waiting around for Friday night or waiting perhaps
for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil or a better break or a string of pearls or a pair of pants or a wig with curls or another chance.Everyone is just waiting."
Dr. Suess’s words adequately describe our Situation. We call it the waiting game. We sit. We wonder. We ask. While our little worlds are turned upside down, while we watch ESPN or Desperate Housewives, we wait. What are we waiting for? Tomorrow? Bed Time? Break Time?
Love Can’t Wait.
Paul didn’t have much time to wait around. The community in Corinth had serious problems. Paul formed a response. Corinth had become rich in knowledge and speech, but they were still lacking. Recall the 13th chapter of Corinthians. Some scholars dispute whether Paul actually wrote the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians. Some say those who made manuscripts of the Canon added this chapter. Whether the author was Paul or Monks, the author realized that for the Christian life, if you have no love, you have nothing.
As we find at the beginning of Paul’s letter, Corinth was searching and waiting. It was a young community and impressionable. The community needed direction. Corinth was a young, hip town. The young church didn’t know how to survive. They blended in with every other group – they lost their identity, their identity we call love.
They couldn’t love, or they didn’t want to, or perhaps they didn’t know how.
Perhaps their smarts got the best of them. They started playing the political game and pawned one person off on the other; they out-thought their situation; they justified their ignorance of love. They waited for a solution no amount of knowledge or money could buy.
After much rebuking, Paul tells them three things remain: faith, hope, & love. He tells them learn these, but remember and strive hardest for love.
Why love? What makes love so much more special than faith & hope?
Love can’t wait. Love acts now. Love speaks out in the moment.
Though we wait around, the universe continues spinning. While we sit, time passes, and opportunities to love dwindle. When it comes to love, the waiting game is a losing game.
Love, my friends, is like playing the blues.
I went to Memphis awhile back. The blues were playing and the ribs cooking – and there’s never a shortage of either. Blues has its own fascinating story. The first appearance of the blues is ambiguous. It is often dated after the Emancipation Act in 1863. Soon following were the development of juke joints as places where Blacks went listening to music, dancing and often gambling after a hard day's work. The transition from slavery to sharecropping, small-scale agricultural production and the expansion of railroads in the southern United States grew during this time. Several scholars argue that the development of the blues is associated with the newly acquired freedom of enslaved people.
For the first time in America’s History, blacks were free to make the music they wanted. They could sing their songs without fear of oppression. Blues were integral to civil rights movement.
Love is the blues. Sweet and simple. Born out of emancipation from the chains of this world, we have discovered a new freedom: the freedom to love; freedom to welcome, invite, and share our lives together.
Christians understand this sentiment, too. We proclaim a freedom, that our fate is no longer sealed by this world, but opened by the Kingdom of God. We discover a new definition of freedom. This freedom is found in God, through Christ as we cling to faith, hope, and love.
Blues players don’t wait for the right time to blow their horn. They don’t wait for the music to be just right: they play.
We as Christians have the archetypal Blues player in Jesus. He didn’t wait to make sure the conditions were right. He didn’t wait offstage until everything was perfect: He loved. He loved even the Gentiles. He loved even Judas. He loved in the moment.
Love Can’t Wait. What are we waiting for?
With many Christian virtues, perhaps we confuse them.
Faith as we traditionally call it is divided into belief and unbelief. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the entire staircase.” I suggest that our faith is not only taking the first step. Faith is many things. Faith is belief informed by those gone before us. Faith among many things is our tradition.
Hope reaches forward. Hope asks, “What should life look like?” We strive with hope not only for brighter days, but better days. With hope, we strive for days where peace will reign and pain is no more. Hope also lives within our lives as we hope against hope to make the next day better than the last.
We are left with love. We are left with the here-and-now.
Jesus understood the here and now when he commanded “Love thy neighbor as yourself.” Jesus didn’t command to love they neighbor tomorrow. Jesus didn’t command you should have loved your neighbor. He said, “Love thy neighbor.”
Jesus knew love couldn’t wait. What are we waiting for?
Like blues, love isn’t an act, it’s a lifestyle. When Jesus refreshed the commandment to love, he offered it in such a way that loving one person and not another proves difficult. It’s like trying to give one child a Popsicle and not giving to the other child. With our neighbors constantly changing waiting around proves difficult.
If love can’t wait, what are waiting for?
Do We wait for someone to spoon-feed our ego.
Do We wait for the moments when we are told we have done well.
Do We wait for the brooding to end.
Do We wait for the moment when finally get over our own lives and into the lives of others.
Do We wait for the moments when we no longer cry like a child of this world, but serve as a child of God.
We wait for these things.
How long can we wait?
John Mayer, a popular music artist and a favorite artist of mine, performs a song, “Waiting on the World to Change.” The song enjoyed much success as a single and even won a Grammy. For all the song’s notoriety, Mayer got something wrong. He says, “Now we see everything that's going wrong; with the world and those who lead it; we just feel like we don't have the means to rise above and beat it; so we keep waiting on the world to change.”
While he may be waiting on the world to change, love does not wait. Love does not wait for a world around it to change; love changes the world. Change begins with our church community. The differences we have unite us. The strains we have we work through. All across our globe and in this city we face hurdles that, without love, are insurmountable. Indeed, love is nothing but a bankrupt word without love.
What makes us wait? Sadness or fear of the unknown? No doubt we all have our reasons. When we are asked to aid the poor we wonder how this might affect our political status, or we simply may not have the money to give.
For Americans the greatest act of love is sacrificing your time and desires. In our world of constant activity, from soccer games to meetings, our time’s worth grows. Time is love. We make the choice to sacrifice time – no one chooses for us.
When we devote time to the poor, it is a choice of love.
When we devote time to our children and families, it is a choice of love.
When we respond to the emotional needs of the person in the mirror, it is a choice of love.
Anytime we make better somebody’s life, it is a choice of love.
Love does not ask for waiting. Love calls out for action. Love doesn’t look into the whites of the eyes, but rather in the darkness of the pupil. Looks into the only spot on the body where there exists a great unknown. In that vast unknown we find God – calling out for a response.
One day I hope future generations remember and can say of our response that we tried to give our lives serving others. I’d like for somebody to say today we tried to love somebody. I want someone to be able to say tomorrow that we did try to feed the hungry. I want someone to say one day that we did try in our lives to visit those who were in prison. I want someone to say that we tried to love and serve humanity; that we did not wait because we knew love does not wait.
The face of love changes from time to time. With tough economic times we see more and more people needing money. We see more homes foreclosed. Giving at churches is down as we all struggle to put back together the 3000 piece puzzle we call the economy. We must move from a community in the sanctuary to a sanctuary in the community. In this community and across this city we have the chance to reach out and invest our lives, our love into those who need it most.
It’s okay to say we don’t know how to love, we don’t know how to meet needs. That’s where our community steps in. That’s where we share our experiences with other churches as we all seek to love. Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Catholic, all of us, we see the work of God in a different perspective. The differences play an important part in the tapestry God weaves. We are all sharing this world, we are all living in this community, and we all have are a responsibility to love. As a community, love runs through our united life like a stream, and because it has been a great irrigating force, the days are always green. With love we have little barrenness, whether of the mind or the spirit. When we love each other as unselfishly as is humanly possible, we will find it natural to love our fellow human. Love Can’t Wait.
Our responses are varied, but we must respond. From the child struggling to read to the church struggling to pay the bills, we must respond. As we respond remember that we are all sinners saved by grace?
We need to remember, we are not saints. We live in a broken world – Human behavior is sometimes unforgivable. We do not condone the great crimes against peoples or the little crimes individually perpetrated. It is difficult to pardon them. It is difficult not to ask revenge or punishment. But there was one who had compassion in His heart for the multitude and for the sinner. We do not presume to measure our very human attitude against the blinding divinity of that great spirit, but love calls out in our hearts for compassion, for understanding.
My sisters and brothers: I believe.
I believe in you and me.
I believe in my neighbor.
I believe in the power of God’s love.
Love cannot remain by itself has no meaning, Love has to be put into action and that action is service. Go forth now and love. You have the gift, now give it freely.
- a .pdf version may be found here.
The sun was high in the sky. Forty years ago the parking lot would have been filled, but today there were only a few cars in this lot. I perspired through my shirt. People snapped pictures of the infamous building we were visiting. I felt lost. I felt pain. I felt sadness. A wreath hung from the balcony, looming over us as though there was a mysterious energy pulsating. As I wondered through the Loraine Motel I eventually came upon a spot where I overlooked the balcony. In that spot I stood near the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breathed his last. In that place, a pool of blood and a clenched cigarette were all that remained. In that remnant, hope and hate met.
Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles reflected upon that day saying:
“And they said, “We will shoot this dreamer and see what happens to his dream." That's where the witness comes in. The witness will tell all who will listen, "Yes, you can kill the dreamer, but no, you absolutely cannot kill the dream.” And so that witness has taken me through all of this for the last 40 years. I know that's what I'm supposed to do, and that's what I do.”
Every witness needs a gospel.
When MLK breathed his last his dream did not die with him. It is true, we have not arrived at the fullest realization of his dream, but we catch glimpses and the Dream is still alive. For Kyles and others it is not the dream itself that energized the movement. It is the witness not of a death, but of a life.
I can tell you neither the weather nor how many donkeys were around the day our rogue witness watched Jesus die. Jesus had been convicted and was sentenced to death. It was a disgraceful death. He, the sarcastically named ‘King of the Jews,’ suffered an abysmal death. Yet, I can’t tell you who our witness was. Who was he? Or, who was she? We don’t know what this witness said, but it may have sounded something like:
And they said, “We will crucify this dreamer and see what happens to his dream.”
When Jesus breathed his last his dream did not die with him. It is true, we have not arrived at the fullest realization of his dream, but we catch glimpses and the Dream is still alive. For our witness and others, it is not the dream itself that energized a movement. It is the witness not of a death, but of a life
Every witness needs a gospel.
There was no Twitter at Golgatha, updating the Roman Empire on who had been killed. There were no written documents detailing who had been killed. The Gospel writer needed someone to corroborate the story told, he needed a witness. That witness spoke the truth – Jesus died.
Every witness needs a gospel. When I say gospel I’m not speaking of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John’s writings. I’m not speaking about good news. I’m talking about something of prime importance. You’re only a witness when you have special information. You have seen something that others have not. Perhaps this witness didn’t see only the Jesus’ death. But, the witness saw the life of Jesus. Perhaps the witness didn’t only proclaim how Jesus died, but how Jesus lived. That wrapped up in the what the witness saw was the prime importance of Jesus’ life!
What do you see? What of utmost importance do you see in the world?
Because throughout history I see that God is deeply connected to this world, the world we often times condemn. I see that God’s love knows no color, no creed, no boundary. Need examples?Jesus was born unto a young woman who faced societal judgment. Martin Luther King was born a into the Jim Crow South. In Jericho there lived a prostitute named Rahab who assisted Israelite spies. Priscilla was a tentmaker who became a teacher of the early Christian faith. If you need more examples, we’ll chat later.
The gospel we know doesn’t call us to a crucifixion on the cross or on a balcony. The cross we carry isn’t up to a hill called Golgatha, the “Place of the Skull” where with a name like that you can’t expect anything good. We are called to a gospel that is always and at once tied up in our lives. The gospel is not a book. It is not words on a page that describe the gospel we witness. What we witness are lives lived as we teeter between belief and unbelief.
Every witness needs a gospel.
As I stood in the Loraine Motel I wondered how I could be a witness. As I listen to the Gospel story of Christ’s death, I wonder how I could be a witness. After all, to call yourself a witness is to see the events firsthand. I didn’t see the crucifixion of Christ. I saw neither Mary weep nor soldiers take the hyssop and offer the wine.
How can you be a witness?
As a gospel witness our responsibility is to see the world. To see opportunities to love. To give hope to the hopeless. To love the unloved. And foster faith for the disillusioned.
Our witness begins here. Proclaiming the word through the movement of our hands and our desire. The witness we hear about in the Gospel tells that Jesus did die. That Jesus did not hide for three days in a tomb. But that Jesus suffered, died and was buried. That the good news of ressurection is alive and possible. As radical as the resurrection was, so to is the proclamation of hope, peace, and love, ideas that are radical.
When we make ourselves a witness we proclaim that the gospel of resurrection is just around the corner. When we see a broken body, there is hope for healing. When we see the blood of injustice we will apply the gauze of God’s golden guarantee: Righteousness and justice.
How often do righteousness and justice seem so far away? How discouraged do we become? I offer no remedy for discouragement. I offer no solution. Discouragement happens. Weariness happens. Fact is I could explain how to overcome discouragement, but it won't make you feel any better. We find comfort in the arms of community. While we are called to hear stories, we must also be willing to tell our own story. We cannot carry our burdens alone. Discouragement is a season we all pass through.
This ebb and flow between storyteller and witness is always at work. We need those willing to stand up and tell a story of hope, struggle, oppression, or redemption. We as people, all across the globe and in this room, need to hear stories. Story after story we might soon find out that we aren’t so different. We all struggle, we all share joy, fear, and triumph. For it is the witness of Christ’s death where soldiers, Mary, Peter, and a rogue witness are brought together.
If the twenty-fist century is to be any less deadly than the twentieth, witnesses must stand up and speak out. Senses of justice must become more acute. The appreciation for the fragility life must become deeper. We must become, as a global community, more caring and compassionate.2 This will not happen without witnesses.
The hope of our gospel, our important news, will take us to unknown places. For some it has taken them to the ends of the earth, others to edge of their hearts. For Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles who was present when MLK died it meant putting one foot in front of the other. For Fannie Lou Hamer it meant forming the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971 and speaking for inclusion of racial issues in the feminist agenda.
Proclaiming the dream will not be proclaimed by words alone. Our powerful propositions will be the movement of our feet. We will shape our world with the dream-inspired hands. We will, with our soul, go to the world with a message of love and redemption.
For our greatest witness is not that we are timid, but that in darkness, in the middle of chaos when there is no hope, we hear each other. We hear and we act. We do not wait, but know that the story is no longer a tale, but a call for action.
Who will tell your story? Who’s story are you proclaiming?
As we proclaim we must realize that this has not always been a fair game. Even as the witness tells of Jesus’ Death, the Roman Empire looms over the early Christian world. But we don’t even need to look to the Bible for those stories that have been overlooked. Why, we don’t need to look past yesterday to hear stories to which a deaf ear has been turned.
To proclaim we must listen. It can be hard to hear the stories of those that suffer. Many suffer from the ailment called shame. Their burden is one that they did not choose. Their burden is one placed upon them by those that could not listen, even to themselves. But you have heard a story of a man that hung on a cross. He was born to a young woman, unmarried parents, and challenged the status quo. Shame was the game for those around him.
Yet for our obscure, no-name, out of the blue, run of the mill, jack (or jill) of all trades, quickly-fading, never digressing witness, that gospel was love! A new way of relating had come. No longer did we have to control through shame, but we could liberate through love.
The image of the wreath hanging from the balcony remains fresh in my mind. But, the Loraine Motel cannot contain all that is a dream and neither can a cross on a hill. For the dream is within me and within you. Yes, you can crucify the dreamer, but you cannot crucify the dream.