Sunday, May 19, 2019

Probing the Depths of Truth

PROPERS:         5 EASTER, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 ACTS 11:1-18

ONE SENTENCE:        The essence of the gospel is to open the gates of the                                             realm of God wider than many have thought.

            Peter got a glimpse of the radical nature of God’s love in the first lesson today.

            God had shown him, in a dream, that “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
            On a mundane and trivial level, that freed us to eat shrimp, oysters, and other shellfish.  We are certainly thankful for that revelation!

            What was largely lost, though, was that the generosity… the expansiveness… of God’s grace went well beyond the Levitical dietary laws.  We still struggle with that issue today.

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            It seems that the insights from Peter’s dream were seen as more specific and less global.  Yes, the gospel freed Jesus’ followers from dietary laws.  Yes, the gospel freed Jesus’ followers from the rituals of Jewish initiation.  Yes, the gospel allowed Gentiles into the community of faith.

            But not much more than that. After all, we must place limits on grace!

            Think of this fact from the gospels:  The original proclaimers of the resurrection – the initial witnesses – were all women.  Yet, women were largely excluded from the councils of the church for many centuries.

            It seems that the church took the insights of Peter’s dream and replied, “Yes, but…”. It also seems that, from the beginning, the energy of many centuries of the church was focused on who was inand who was out.

            The interpretation of Jesus’ open arms was too meager.  The love of God was meant for some, but not others.  One could only be a part of the ecclesia– the community of faith – if they were worthy.  That understanding flies in the face of the concept of grace– that which is given freely and cannot be earned.

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            In recent years, the generosity of God’s love has been beautifully and graciously addressed in the words of a young woman.  Her voice has recently been silenced by a very untimely and premature death.

            Rachel Held Evans lived in Dayton, Tennessee – a community known as Monkey Town, because it was the site of the famous Scopes trial in 1925.

            Her father was a professor of Biblical Studies at the conservative, evangelical college there, Bryan College, named for the prosecutor in the famous trial, William Jennings Bryan.  Rachel Held Evans was reared a conservative evangelical, and graduated from Bryan College.

            She married a classmate and remained in Dayton.  But her journey was long from over.  She was blessed with a keen theological mind.  The scripture in which she had immersed herself throughout her life raised questions for her.  

            The application of scripture by her evangelical pastors and teachers posed challenges to her.  So, she continued her journey of faith – looking deeper into the sacred stories she loved so much. And she posed questions to the hierarchy of her church.

            She began to write – both books and a very popular blog.  Her books included A Year of Biblical Womanhood, her account of living according to the Biblical law for women; Searching for Sundays,an account of her journey of faith; and Inspired, her testimony of love for the message of scripture.  Her writing was clear, moving, and poignant. 

            Her questioning of evangelical orthodoxy led to alienation from her faith community – being shunned by those with whom she had worshipped.  She took time off – time from the church she had loved all her life.

            She blossomed as a well-known and much-in-demand speaker. She gained a national following, and the respect of her theological opponents.  She was much-beloved.

            And her journey led her to the Episcopal Church. 

            Sadly, even tragically, she died a few weeks ago.  She experienced seizures after a bout with flu and a kidney infection. She had a husband, Dan, and two children – ages three and almost one. She was 37 years of age.

            In a sense, her voice has been silenced.  But her words live on.  And they challenge us.

            Her words challenge us to hear the story of Peter’s insight with clarity. They beckon us to see the Good Newsas something which goes beyond the strictures of limited understanding.  They call us to see God’s love as something that is expansive – broad, deep, and high – and not as something that is tied to cultural or political norms.

            Like Rachel Held Evans, I have been on a journey.  God has been my constant companion as long as I can remember.  My faith has had its periods of being static– hard and affixed.  But like the great preacher John Claypool, my eyes have been opened to see different dimensions to the gospel.  I pray that that openness to seeing things anew will continue.

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            My family used to stand around my great-grandfather’s piano and sing his favorite hymns.  We were gathered in his house on Hardy Street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My aunt would play the old upright piano.

            One of those hymns was Give Me that Old Time Religion.  Another was I Love to Tell the Story.I still embrace that memory – my mother, father, grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousins, and great-grandfather all now gone to their reward.  And that old, old story, of which we sang, has not changed.  Only my ability to grasp it in its fullness.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

A Bolt Out of the Blue

PROPERS:         3 EASTER, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 ACTS 9:1-6 (7-20)

ONE SENTENCE:        The release of our tension (and souls) to the Higher                                             Power we call God enables new life.      

            The first lesson’s account of Paul’s interrupted trip from Jerusalem to Damascus is one of the most famous stories in all of scripture.

            There are famous sayings which come from it:  I saw the lightand A road to Damascus experienceare examples of how it has entered our everyday language.

            Paul, of course, was then known as Saul.  He ultimately became the most important Christian missionary of all time. It was through him and his teaching that Christianity was transformed from a tiny sect in Jerusalem to a powerful movement in the known corners of the world.

            But he did not get there easily.

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            Saul was a devout Jew – a Pharisee, with an excellent education.  He was deeply concerned by this new sect within Judaism. They were teaching heresy and the unusual nature – some say divine – of this itinerant Galilean rabbi, who had been executed and had, according to some sources, risen from the dead.

            Saul began to oppose that movement – forcefully – to cleanse the people of this unsightly blemish growing on the body. His actions approached physical violence.

            We are told of his role in the stoning of Stephen, the first deacon and first Christian martyr.  While enraged men threw the stones which would kill Stephen, Saul held their coats and looked on approvingly.

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            Some of what I am saying will be theoretical or hypothetical.  But I know human nature, and I suspect I know Saul’s mind at that point.

            Saul became obsessed with the new movement, called The Way.  The more it spread, the more he obsessed.  It became his mission to eradicate the tiny but troublesome sect from the earth.  He was likely consumed by his anger and obsession.  As the old saying goes, He was tight as a tick.

            I suspect he had trouble sleeping – tossing and turning, thinking about what was being done.  He may have had trouble eating – his appetite consumed by his obsession.  His rage grew.

            So, we are told in the first lesson,still breathing threats and murder, he asked for letters of permission from high religious authorities in Jerusalem – permission to capture and bring to justice those in Damascus who followed The Way.

            Saul got the permission and began his 150-mile journey on horseback.

            It was then that things got interesting.

            Saul and his companions were on the way.  At about noon, a blinding-light struck Saul, and he fell from his horse. A voice out of the light said to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

            Scared out of his wits, I assume, Saul asked reasonably: “Who are you, Lord?” The voice from the light responded, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up, and go into the city and you will be told what to do.”

            Saul was blind and enfeebled, and at that moment his life pivoted.  In New Testament Greek verbiage, it was a metanoiaexperience – a radical turning about.

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            Former Chicago mayor and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel once said, “A serious crisis should never be wasted.”  That was certainly the case with Saul.  The crisis he faced was not wasted. His life and the world would never be the same.

            As directed, Saul went into Damascus.  There he was welcomed, somewhat skeptically.  He had a well-known and threatening reputation. But he was welcomed and after several days he took food and drink. A little-known fact about Saul: He studied, prayed and grew for several years before he was unleashed on the world.

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            Have you ever been bound up by concerns of life – so tight that you could not focus on anything besides the issue confronting you?  Have you ever been so overwhelmed with life that you could not see the next step?  Have you ever been so resentful – that is anger with dust on it– that relationships are broken and alienation runs rampant?

            Perhaps you can identify with Saul.

            Alcoholics and those with issues of chemical dependency know the bindwell.  Their only thought is the next drink… or the next hit of a drug.  That is, until…

            Until there is divine intervention – or in the parlance of 12 Step Programs, they recognize they are powerless and give themselves over to a Higher Power. We Christians call that Higher Power God.  And it was such a Higher Power that knocked Saul off his horse, blinded him, and changed his life forever.

            Saul had to reach the depths of his obsession.  Alcoholics have to reach the depths of their addiction.  The need for relief will come like the ultimate thirst for water, when the throat is dry and parched, and you are surrounded by a vast wasteland.

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            There is an analogy to Saul’s story which, like all analogies, is not perfect. After all, even after a significant turning about,we remain afflicted with the human condition.  But, in this case, a life was significantly changed.

            Thomas Albert Tarrants, from Mobile, was a young man who was enraged.  He was enraged with the civil rights movement in 1960s Mississippi.  He was enraged with what he saw as the dominance of Jewish businesses in Mississippi communities.  He believed that the Jewish people, today, were responsible for the cross and for what he believed was the suffering of white Mississippians.

            So, he began a war of terror – burning black churches, dynamiting a rabbi’s home in Jackson, and, in a night I remember well, bombing the synagogue in Meridian. It was a reign of terror.

            Police and the FBI were stymied.  But a tip came in, and a stake-out was set up at prominent Jewish businessman’s Meridian home.  Neighbors were secretly evacuated.

            When Tommy Tarrants drove up to the home in an unlighted car and deposited 29 sticks of dynamite in the carport of the businessman’s home, a gunfight between the hidden policemen and Tarrants erupted.

            Following a harrowing chase through Meridian neighborhoods, Tarrants was captured. He was tried and convicted for his crimes, and sentenced to Parchman Prison in the stark, bleak flatland of the Mississippi Delta.

            But Tarrants still raged.  His war was not over. A wily and dangerous man, he escaped prison, but was captured a few days later outside of Jackson.  Back to prison he went – with an additional five-year sentence.

            It was then, in the depths of dark solitary confinement, that Tommy Tarrants became a new creation.  He encountered God in a grace-filled way. His life pivoted.  It was a metanoiaexperience – not at all unlike Saul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus.

            When he was released from prison, Tommy Tarrants entered the ordained ministry. He received a Master’s and Doctoral degrees and for several years was affiliated with the C. S. Lewis Institute. He has a new book being published in August: Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation.

            Life can change.

            What the stories of Saul and Tommy Tarrants tell us is that there is nothing– no brokenness, no affliction, no bitterness, no obsession, no hatred – which is stronger than the potential grace of God. Paul tells us that in his Letter to the Romans.

            When you are at your deepest, you are closest to God’s grace.