The Narrow Gate

Welcome to the continuation of my blog, post-seminary. Ministry and evangelism have brought me back home to Chattanooga. I welcome your company on my journey.

The original blog, Down In Mississippi, shared stories from 2008 and 2009 of the hope and determination of people in the face of disaster wrought by the hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, of work done primarily by volunteers from churches across America and with financial support of many aid agencies and private donations and the Church. My Mississippi posts really ended with the post of August 16, 2009. Much work, especially for the neediest, remained undone after the denominational church pulled out. Such is the nature of institutions. The world still needs your hands for a hand up. I commend to you my seven stories, Down in Mississippi I -VII, at the bottom of this page and the blog posts. They describe an experience of grace.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Day 1595 - Don’t Keep It In

A sermon shared with First Presbyterian Church, April 23, 2017, Spring City, TN
Most people who read John 20:19-31 are immediately drawn to the experience of “doubting” Thomas, the twin. But, some pastors and priests (even some parishioners?) are inclined to hang onto verse 23 as a justification for them to decide to forgive or condemn a person for their sins. I will come back to that misunderstanding shortly.
However, at the outset, I must say how impressive are passages such as the concluding verses of John 20, probably the original end of John’s gospel. They deserve attention because in obvious and subtle ways Jesus directly connects the good news, his life, death and resurrection, to the history and covenant between God and Israel. In doing this, Jesus validates his person as God’s Son (or God himself) and connects human sin, life and death, faith and ultimately our calling as Christians to the good news and covenantal history.
Imagine in John’s account we are in the shoes of the disciples after the crucifixion.  We know only that Peter and the disciple run to the tomb after Mary Magdalene told them someone has taken the body of Jesus.  Afterwards, Jesus appears only to Mary Magdalene and she tells the disciples that she has seen Jesus. But, according to the gospels, they do not understand any of this. Luke tells us the disciples thought the women were telling them a tall tale.
Only later when Jesus speaks to them in the locked room where they are hiding do they realize Jesus, the Son of God, stands before them. He shows his wounds, and says, “Peace be with you.” It must have been a terribly frightening scene to be confronted by the person of God without that assurance of peace. (Luke 24:36-38 describes the fear more explicitly.)
Jesus repeats his greeting twice in this room, “Peace be with you.”  Although “Peace be with you” was a common greeting, Jesus and the disciples know it is comes from the experience of Gideon when the Angel of the Lord appeared before him and commanded that he defeat the Midianites. (Angel of the Lord is a Hebrew euphemism for God as the text of Judges shows later, since the name of God is too holy to be voiced.) Gideon did not recognize God, and this command to deliver Israel from the hand of Midian is so unreal that Gideon demanded proof. After the Angel of the Lord demonstrated the power of God, Gideon fell on his face thinking he will die, and exclaimed, “Help me, Lord God! For I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” The Lord responded, “Peace be with you, you shall not die.”
Appearing in an unimaginable way and offering the assurance to the disciples, “Peace be with you” uses biblical history to telegraph the assurance the Lord gave Gideon, that they are safe in God’s presence. It also is a prelude to Thomas’ disbelief without proof.
Jesus does more than use the greeting to Gideon to reveal himself and new life. He ties his resurrection and presence in this room to God directly by recalling the human history of life and death, sin and faith in the Old Testament.
Immediately after saying, “Peace be with you,” Jesus breathes on the disciples telling them they have received the Holy Spirit.  If you recall the creation story in Genesis 2:7, when the Lord made Adam from dust, he was lifeless until the Lord blew his breath into him.
This similarity to creation of Adam when Jesus breathes on them cannot be lost on the disciples. From the beginning we hear that we are created by God, and are a people troubled by sin that leads to death.
Though we have received the breath of life through the breath of Adam, we still lost paradise.  The Lord’s speaks to Cain after the murder of Abel (in Gen. 3:19), “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The Psalmist (in Ps 104:29), laments the anger of God towards his chosen people and the death we all face, “When you (the Lord) hide your face, they (Israel) are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.”
Even Solomon (in Ecclesiastes 3) lamented that our lot in life is to do our best to cling to the Law and live our days until we die and our bodies return to dust and our breath returns to God. In the Hebrew scripture, the breath of God is vital to life. It is the essence of life, itself.
Thus, Hebrews believe the scripture states that when you die, God’s breath returns to God. Now perhaps we can appreciate the comfort of those words of Jesus, and the wind of the Holy Spirit. The two together state, “Peace be with you, you shall not die.” At this moment, Jesus is accomplishing a new creation story, he breathes the breath of new eternal life into the disciples, sealing God’s covenant!
After Jesus assures them they will not die (“Peace be with you”) and breathes new life into them in this new creation story, he gives them the commandment to proclaim the good news, heard in one form or another in every gospel, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
The disciples are newborn children of God given a new job or calling by Jesus to be ministers of the gospel. He does not tell them to breathe new life into people, or to judge them. He sends them to carry the Good News that people might believe and repent, and be forgiven.
At the outset I said some object to this, pointing to the next instruction after receiving the Holy Spirit (v23), “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Many denominations and pastors take this verse to mean, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; but if you decide not to forgive the sins, they are not forgiven.”
They use this passage to claim the authority and power to forgive and to call out and judge sinners. Even John Calvin reads it this way.  Among the evil he saw in the world, he concluded only a few good people must be elected to eternal life. (and of course, he is one of them!) As God has sent me, so I send you”…did Jesus judge or forgive people?
What is going on is that people are shoehorning scripture to conform it to their own ideas about right and wrong, rather than God’s ideas. Let me explain how.
You may remember the parable of the master of the field (Matt 20:1-16). The master needed laborers and went out in the morning to hire workers at a given wage and finding he needed more, continued hiring laborers throughout the day. At the end of the day, he paid them all the same wage, even the person who only worked an hour.
Where is the justice in that? It is not right that the people who worked the longest get the same reward as those who worked the least. But Jesus says that is what grace is all about, it is his grace to give the way he sees it. It does not matter how long it takes to find faith, or even what you have done on the road to faith, when you see the light you get the same pay.
There are two big lessons in these short verses. First, Protestant Christians believe every one of us are commissioned to proclaim the Good News. We are all ministers of Jesus. It is faith in the good news we proclaim that saves, not being touched or judged by a pastor.
The second lesson is that as ministers and sinners due to our own flaws, we need a great amount of humility concerning another person’s sin or righteousness to understand the instruction about forgiving and retaining sin. We do not know what lies in the heart of another person, nor they, us. Taking it further, when someone hurts you and then asks you to forgive them, how do you know they truly earnest, or lying?  The best of us can be the worst of us and the worst can be the best. Only God knows what is in a person’s heart.
Please look at this verse closely.  It says if you forgive the sins of someone, they are forgiven. That is obvious. It fits nicely with everything Jesus taught about forgiveness.
But the second part is more complicated, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What does it mean to say, “they (the sins of others) are retained?”
If you are an expert in language, the verb in the expression, “They are retained,” is the perfect tense. The perfect tense describes a past and completed event that has a continuing effect in the present. It goes like this, “The bank foreclosed on my car, therefore I am walking today.”
The word “retained” means grasp, hold on to, take possession. So, if we retain the sins of someone, it means we keep the sins with us. The consequence of not forgiving sin plants them as a seed of resentment and judgement in our heart. We take on a resentment continuing into the present and its burden on us grows. It stays with you and stops any kind of reconciliation. We become gluttons of sin.
So, this instruction does not mean, a pastor, a priest or a minister like you has some special power vested by Jesus to forgive and absolve sin or condemn a person for sin (only God can do that and he has through Jesus), but rather, it states a high bar of caution for living the good life. We have the power to forgive the sins of someone and to share the joy and freedom of a heart unburdened by resentment and anger over their sin, even when an apology isn’t forthcoming.
It does not necessarily mean we should tolerate hurtful behavior indefinitely, or not keep our eyes open for danger. It is a decision each must make in one’s conscience. To separate from some person who has wronged you should be the absolute last resort, done only to prevent anger and resentment from crippling your ministry.

Remember what Jesus did in that room. He breathed new life in us, made ministers of all of us who believe. I invite you to think about your calling to be a minister or an ambassador; and that Jesus tells us we can’t our best job of proclaiming the forgiveness of the gospel and of feeding His sheep if we have a seed of resentment growing in our heart - Even if you have not yet imagined yourself a minister of God. AMEN.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Day 1588 - Meet Me in Galilee

An Easter Sermon at First Presbyterian Church, Spring City, TN, April 16, 2017(edited)

On Easter Sunday in most worship services you will hear similar sermons about resurrection and faith. These are meritorious endeavors because the faith that resurrection demands is quite important. Resurrection is an event that mocks reason, logic and wisdom. In the eyes of the wise, it is a foolish idea. What is worthier of celebrating than Apostle Paul’s foolish idea of victory over death?
Last Sunday I shared the Easter story up to the death of Jesus. Although we ended a little ahead of the timeline, it was important to share it with those of our youth who are here only every other Sunday. For all who heard or read it, I hope one message carried through the week from that service. In the Easter event Jesus disrupted the way the world operates -  forever. That disruption began with his entry into the World as a human and finished for all humanity in his crucifixion and resurrection.
No one comes back from the dead... Except Jesus who defeated death for all.
In the aftermath of the resurrection Jesus voiced two important commands to his followers. (Remember, God is the God of the Living.) In our joy on Easter Sunday we can overlook these commands; therefore, I want to explore with you today the two-fold message of hope and of obligation that Jesus left us after his resurrection.
These are commands to those he has called to service. They are far more important than Easter Egg hunts and wearing our finest. (In the days of my youth, I recall that Easter Sunday was always one of the biggest Sundays.  The ushers arrived early and positioned folding chairs on both ends of all the pews. So many people arrived for worship dressed in their finest that there all the chairs downstairs were taken and more chairs had to be placed on the ends of the rows in the balcony. Children were excited about Easter candy and egg hunts. Being an impressionable young boy, I always wondered, “Where were all these folks on the other Sundays of the year?”)
These days it is a rare event to see the sanctuary filled to the brim. I don’t think it is because our morally lax society turns people away from Christianity, but rather that the “fence-sitters” do not feel the need to “make an appearance.”  We could make an argument that only the remnant of believers remains - after all, God calls us to him.
I do know that we are called here this morning to honor the culmination of the greatest story ever told. To appreciate it, let us place ourself with the followers of Jesus after that resurrection day.
In the space of five days, every follower of Jesus, even the curious fence-sitters lingering in the background, experienced the most exciting high spirits and expectations for the future as the Messiah, the King of Kings, entered Jerusalem and revealed himself. Then everyone plummeted into absolute fear for their lives after his arrest and crucifixion, and all fled into hiding, abandoning Jesus… except the women.
The women, either because it was their duty to tend to the dead, or because they held such awe, reverence, and compassion for Jesus and his message of good news, felt compelled to go to the tomb. They were struck with deathly fear when they discovered the body of Jesus is gone and a man, or angel, speaks to them.
Each gospel in one way or another relates the same experience of the women. Almost paralyzed by fear, they are informed by a divine presence that (1) Jesus has been raised, and (2) told to take this message to the disciples: “Meet me in Galilee.” 
The Greek words of deathly fear and amazement are sometimes used to describe powerful spiritual encounters with the divine. In John’s gospel Jesus reveals himself before fearful and amazed Mary and a disciple at the tomb. Perhaps John believed that the angel in Matthew, and man in white in Mark and Luke was the divine form of Jesus who had yet to reveal his identity?...
 “He has been raised. Tell the others he will meet them in Galilee.”…
I have given a lot of thought as to why Jesus did not just appear to the disciples in Jerusalem after the resurrection rather than call them to Galilee. Though in John Jesus does reveal himself to Mary at the tomb, and to the disciples trembling in fear in Jerusalem, they seem to either misunderstand or forget until Jesus appears again on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Chapter 21).
There is a powerful connection between the good news and Galilee. Jesus recruited the disciples there, telling them they would become fishers of men. Now after the crucifixion, they find themselves again beside this sea as Jesus commands them to spread the good news to the world. The Gospel of John says it most elegantly. Remembering Peter’s three courtyard denials, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter replies, “Yes.” Here is John 21:15-17 (NRSV):
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

The reason the disciples and Jesus began and returned to Galilee may lie in exactly what Galilee represents relative to this exchange between Peter and Jesus. You recall among Peter’s denials in the courtyard that a servant girl accused Peter of being one of the followers of Jesus because of his Galilean accent.
Galilee is a transliteration of a Hebrew name meaning “District of the Gentiles.” Galilee was part of the land of the ten tribes of Israel that broke away from Judah at the time of Solomon. It is called District of the Gentiles because over the years of national disruption and captivity, Assyria and Babylon sent undesirable foreigners from other conquered lands to Galilee. Assyria and Babylon only took from Judah the elite, educated people and their wealth, leaving the poor behind who were of no use to them. It was rich farmland where many of these poor Jews who were left behind after captivity lived. Although the historical record is sparse and heavily influenced by the written record of the returning Judeans (see the early chapters of Ezra and Nehemiah), it appears that when the elite Jewish society returned from Babylon, they took the land from the poor leaving them to work on the farms. When Alexander and then Rome came, the land was apportioned for political purposes. (Jewish King Herod, installed by Rome, “owned” the sea of Galilee.)
Galilee had the reputation as a relatively lawless place of mixed national identities and of conservative Judaism and paganism. The people were nationalistic, even patriotic in a way, but had little respect or trust in the authority of the government and we suspect a “Robin Hood” type local justice operated.
So, Galilee was considered a lawless place populated with rough and uncultured people who had a very lax religious practice. For many in Jerusalem, Galileans were considered second-class Jews.
I chuckle when I read this historical account of Galilee because it reminds me of the negative bias in much of the North that we Southerners experience with our southern drawl and easy-going ways. When I was a young boy, my family would travel to Akron, Ohio where my mother’s family moved from South Georgia during the Great Depression. My cousins and aunts and uncles, all in good fun, always wanted my brother and me to talk so they could laugh at our Southern drawl. But as an adult I discovered many people carry a prejudice about that drawl as a sign of a country rube.  After I finished graduate school and went to Pittsburgh to work at Carnegie-Mellon University, some people there thought I was not as bright as them because of my vernacular. Though my drawl took on more of the hardened “Northern” style as I entered the business world, I still found that people underestimated my intelligence because of the stereotype, often to my advantage in negotiations.
So, Galilee in more ways than one represents a contrast between the rarified world of “classical Judaism” in Jerusalem and a half-breed mix of Gentiles and Jewish Galilean outcasts. It represents exactly the people to whom Isaiah says (Isaiah 56:1-8) that God will extend the covenant betwen the Lord with Israel.
It begins to make sense why Jesus wanted to meet the disciples in Galilee. Jesus, post-resurrection, is sending the disciples into the world from Galilee, the place where he began his proclamation of the good news among the outcasts of the land. They go into the new Galilee.

That is why I put “Where is your Galilee?” on the marque. I want us to answer what does “Meet me in Galilee” mean for us?
If asked, “Why are you sitting in these pews?” Your answer (ought to be), “I am called to this place by the Holy Spirit to do God’s business.”  I hope you feel the power of that Spirit within you now with the experience of hope, awe, and the blessing of Easter about us.
Last week we had 15 young people here, they barely outnumbered the adults, I believe. What a blessing!  What a witness of grace! All because of you.
A witness for what?...
The last two commands of Jesus to the disciples are as operative today as they were 2,000 years ago: “Meet me in Galilee!” and if you love me, “Feed My Sheep!”
We understand the literal “Feed my sheep” part well. The “meet me in Galilee” part, though, places a higher expectation of witness on us.
“Feed my sheep” is more than sharing food, it is sharing the compassion that enables us to offer the food. Do you remember when Moses spoke of the Law to the Hebrews at the entry to the Promised Land?  Moses said that you do not need to go to the sea or cross it to find the Law, you only need to look into your heart.
Well, you don’t have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to find your Galilee. Wherever you are, you only need to look around for the people that you are called to be a witness. There you will find seekers - the lost sheep and the hungry souls, the imprisoned, the outcasts, rich and poor, not just the economically poor, but the spiritually poor.
In our joy about being an Easter People, we all need to keep two questions in our mind constantly, the question by Jesus, “Do you love me?” and “Where is your Galilee that Jesus calls you to be a minister?” 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Day 1581 – The Color of Grace

We had quite the Palm Sunday service this morning. This week defines the character of Easter People, or Christianity. Of all the events in history, this is THE disruptive event. We had no traditional sermon today, just a disruptive service in honor of the event. Therefore, you will find posted this week only a reflection on today's service.

A Reflection on Holy Week 2017

I decided to abandon the traditional processional waving palm fronds and singing All Glory Laud and Honor, though it is a beautiful hymn (We did use palm fronds and a hymn). Rather we adopted some liturgies from the Book of Common Worship such as the Confession for Palm Sunday that is more like Prayers of the People, and the Solemn Reproaches of the Cross for the prayer of the people, that is more like a Prayer of Confession. (I said I was trying to be a little disruptive.)
The congregation heard that we were going to have a full service that might run long because the reading was lengthy. We had several elements involving young people. 
At the beginning of Lent, our children “lost” their Alleluias waiting for today to “find” them. This required that they search the sanctuary for them as I relocated the package to a new hideaway after a couple of ingenious young persons had retrieved them and put them in a place they knew. 
Furthermore, last week we had given out hollow metal Easter eggs with a package of candy and a bible verse(s) to memorize. If the young person returns memorizing them, they get a simple prize (and later another memory verse). In addition, I intended to talk about the seasonal liturgical colors but decided we hadn’t the time today.
Oh - I might add we had 15 children between 15 months and 13 years old, and 14 adults. I’m not bragging (though blessed), but sharing my awe that a community this size sent as many children to the Palm Sunday service as adults left the congregation in dissention over polity 2½ years ago.
As I stood before the congregation while two of our young persons passed the offering plates, I realized I was surrounded by so many children. I looked down at the floor and there was a young boy reclining on the carpet at my feet coloring a picture of Jesus in a coloring book. Though the features of Jesus were distinctly Caucasian, my precious young man of African heritage was coloring him brown. Then as we began the doxology, his sibling came up and sat down beside him with her coloring book.
Of course, three of the other slightly older boys caused their own minor disruption as I read the passion narratives (Luke 19:29-42 and Matthew 26:14 - 27:66). (You cannot preach these texts any better than to read them dramatically. The best I could do is add an explanation that in the intervening three days between the events of these two texts, Jesus told parables obviously highly critical of the caretakers of Jerusalem that finalized the resolve to arrest and kill Jesus. I always have great difficulty getting through the Matthew text without my voice cracking.)
Anyway, during the heightening drama as Jesus stands before Pilate, these boys decided to go to the restroom. To do that, they had to walk noisily up to the front of the church to get to the stairs. Then two more young persons followed. (Any time two or more  middle schoolers get together, there is a good chance for an adventurous worship.)
After a while one of the mothers got up and went after them. The boys came back again in another a minor disruption with quite sheepish, guilty looks on their faces. I intended a bit disruptive service but these fellows made it an overstatement!
I’m sure after the service I heard one of the dad’s threatening to make them uncomfortable sitting down if they did it again. Likely that was on top of the tongue-lashing they got from the mom. I told the boys not to worry, the next time they had better go before the service starts because they will be sitting up in the chairs on each side of the pulpit if they try to leave. I know they can hold it for an hour.
I would not have it any other way, a baby crying, another baby sleeping in the pew, middle-schoolers learning appropriate behavior for a setting, preteens excited over mastering  a bible verse or two, the young people who were hanging on to every word of the reading – bring it on. God is good. All the time.
The young people are building their own stories and shaping ours. I can’t get out of my mind the young boy and his coloring book at my feet. If you know me, you know the last line of a hymn based on Psalm 23 that Isaac Watts penned, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” was bouncing in my head. The last stanza goes this way, “The sure provisions of my God Attend me all my days; O may your house be my abode, and all my work be praise. There I would find a settled rest, while others go and come; No more a stranger, or a guest, But like a child at home.” To Carson Brisson my Hebrew professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary, yes, there is a Home.
Today, I find comfort and hope for the future of the American Church in these 15 young people.